Drinking culture in South Korea was built on the pillars of extensive traditions, tasty (and near-mandatory) food pairings, and unspoken drinking rules.
Soju, the clear distilled alcohol of choice, is a huge part of Korean culture, but drinking soju like a local requires more than simply pouring out a shot. For Koreans, drinking isn’t simply a means to an end — it’s an activity around which a whole ecosystem of food, play, and an appreciation of booze itself is built around.
Drinking to bond
This might not seem foreign to anyone who’s ever gone out for happy hour drinks with co-workers, but for Koreans, drinking and socializing truly go hand-in-hand. Freed from the strict norms of offices and university classrooms, people have permission to be emotionally open and connect on a personal level. In fact, such vulnerability is expected in this setting. Whether it’s between a boss and their employees, or a professor and their students, a drinking outing is seen as an imperative to nourish and strengthen personal relationships between two professionals.
Sharing beer is also a way for people to go out of their way to show their generosity and politeness. The night hasn’t ended unless you’ve gone back and forth at least three times on who gets to pay the whole bill. Splitting the bill is rare in Korean drinking culture — and a missed opportunity for someone to show just how much they care about your friendship.
Here’s what many deem the best part of drinking soju the Korean way: Lots and lots of delicious food pairings. Koreans believe that eating while drinking helps your body process the alcohol better. It’s so atypical to drink without ordering at least one item of food that it may as well be made into actual law.
All foods are meant to be shared, and they range from fried chicken and barbecued pork belly to dried anchovies (myeolchi) and shredded squid. The general rule of thumb is: the savorier, the better. There’s no shortage of more carbful options too, including savory flat cakes (jeon) or spicy rice cake sticks (ddeokbokki).
And the eating doesn’t stop once the night is over: day-after-drinking food commands an entire category of restaurant items, including short rib beef soup (galbitang), bean sprout soup (kongnamulguk), and Korean-Chinese spicy seafood soup (jjamppong). These soups are all designed to both hydrate you and restore the salt in your body, not to mention simply being uber tasty excuses to meet with the same set of friends you went out with and recount your night.
Rules and social etiquette
Much of Korean society is organized around hierarchy. While that might seem irrelevant to a night of imbibing, it plays an outsize role in how people interact with each other. Unlike in many western cultures where age is only passively respected, your age in Korean culture dictates everything from how you talk and address someone to what order you’re allowed to drink in. And here, the older you are, the more social capital you gain. (Which you can’t say for many other cultures.)
If an elder (defined as anyone who is even a year older than you) offers you a shot of soju (the regular drink of choice), you’re expected to accept it with both hands. You’re only allowed to actually drink once they’ve started drinking, and even then, you’re expected to turn your face and cover your mouth while drinking. Some of these rules might seem overboard, and in fact, their social enforcement might have relaxed in modern times, but their underlying message is the same: Respect your elders!
Michelle No is a journalist and former food writer for BuzzFeed who writes about food and drink, travel, business, and health. You can read more of her work here or find her on Instagram @michellenope.