It is Saturday morning at 1 a.m. and I am sitting at a folding table outside the GS Mart, a ubiquitous convenience store in my little neighborhood of Seoul. Next to me is my boyfriend, Hudson, and across from us are Ik and Jiny: a young Korean couple we have just met.
The first bottle of soju was shared between us when the serotinal sun still hung lazily on to the evening sky. As the empty bottles steadily gain their ground I hold on to hope that we don’t see the midnight black yawn to blue before I find my bed. Ik fills my cup once more. “Geonbae!” We toast. Down it goes.
Twenty-something travelers are surely sweating their way through grimy beats and five dollar cocktails in the foreigner’s district on this heady August night. But one of the best and most authentic ways to enjoy Korea’s national drink is this: outside of your local convenience store with a beer and a small paper cup waiting to be refilled. Here are the quick and dirty instructions. Always pour the eldest first and yourself last. If someone fills your glass, return the gesture. Continue indefinitely.
In some twisted catch-22 of drinking etiquette, businessmen exchange courtesies until they lie puking on sidewalks waiting for the morning sun to rouse them. But as the clock marches indefatigably towards three, we soldier on. Now it’s my turn to pour. “Geonbae!” The semi-sweet rice wine swims smoothly down to your stomach. And at half the alcohol of your average liquor the familiar grimace of a cheap vodka is all but forgotten.
Just one more bottle can’t hurt.
By nine o’clock the next morning the sun is long past slumber and decides that I should be as well. Hudson utters the first somnolent words.
“We’re supposed to go hiking today. In an hour.” At this revelation I roll back over and clutch a pillow to my steadily beating head. Glimpses of last night pass in blurs and clips amidst the throbbing: an arm wrestling competition between the boys...Jiny kissing me in the GS…something about an arranged marriage...wait, where is my phone? The unforgiving pulse in my brain says I must have had a good time.
Against all odds we make it to Buramsan to meet our friends from home, albeit two hours late. Jon and Marina are frustratingly perky and put together when we arrive. I can’t say as much for Hudson and me. The hike is arduous and the view from the summit is as hazy as my head, but we make it. By the time we finish our descent we are sore, soaked in sweat, and ravenous as wild dogs. Of course the only sustenance we remembered to pack was more soju. Pulling from the silent hunger of our collective conscience Jon suddenly says,
“I know this great haejangguk place nearby”
“What the hell is haejangguk?” I ask, ready to kill and eat the first animal that darts in my path.
“It’s Korean soup with pork spine. It literally translates to ‘hangover soup.’”
Thirty minutes of trains and cabs later, lost in a part of Seoul I never knew existed, we wander into an unassuming restaurant with steaming, meat-filled bowls dotting each table. Without hesitation Jon orders ppyeo haejangguk (뼈해장국) for the table. Hudson and I opt for a couple bottles of soju as well in the spirit of haejang sul (해장술, or ‘hair of the dog’ back West).
Koreans believe that soups have curative powers. The hotter it is outside, the hotter your soup should be, and haejangguk is no exception. The rich stew is traditionally made with coagulated oxblood in a beef or ox broth and packed with leeks, cabbage, garlic, spices, and other veggie goodness. When the bowl arrives, a section of the pig’s spine towers from the boiling pot, vertebrae and all.
Eating in Korea is a process, a ritual that is to be shared by everyone at the table. Following Jon’s lead with just chopsticks and a spoon the tender meat falls effortlessly from the bones directly into my soup (or my mouth). I then suck the remaining meat and marrow until even a stray dog would turn its head at my scraps. The pork is covered in a thick pepper which only adds to the already spicy broth. We alternate broth and meat, banchan (반찬, side dishes), and dipping sauces as we steadily work our way through the meal in relative silence. We stop only for the familiar pour and clink of soju shots in between bites. This is the Korean way.
As sweat beads on my brow and my nose and eyes begin to water I can see why they believe it cures you. Not a single toxin could stay in your body eating two hundred degree soup covered in pepper on a hundred degree day. I have no idea what the oxblood does, but I think it’s working. With each sip of soup and shot of soju I feel one step closer to myself. My muscles aching from hangover and hike slowly loosen and relax as the piquant broth spreads from my stomach out to my weary limbs.
As the meal winds down, Jon informs us that most haejangguk places are open 24 hours a day in the interest of those inebriated businessmen curing their hangovers before the puke dries on the sidewalk. I would have loved to see this place at 3 a.m. We are a little late to the party at 5 p.m. on a Saturday, but I am no less convinced of the power of the pork spine. With our bowls wiped clean and our table scattered in napkins and empty bottles remnant of the night before, it’s time to head home.
As we step up to pay the bill we find our entire homeopathically healing feast including soda and soju for four people comes to a grand total of only ₩22,000 (about $20). Naturally, my mind immediately begins calculating how much more soju I can buy with the money I’ve saved. After all, my hangover is gone and it is Saturday night...
...GS Mart anyone?
A Taste of South Korea - Street Food
Pão de queijo!
About the Author
Taylor Ahlstrom is a ceaseless wanderer, reckless peripatetic, and aspiring raconteur. She is currently wandering her way around Seoul, Korea. You can find her on twitter @nomadiam or follow her adventures at Wanderlust Logs.
Ask A Nomad is a FREE Q&A service for travellers to get answers from locals who know. It is a place to ask your own travel questions or help others by sharing insights and local advice from your trips. It works by recommending questions in real-time to other members who are nearby or have knowledge of a place and likely to know about the topic of interest.
You can even use Ask a Nomad while on the road! Download our iPad App so you can carry your travel questions & answers with you, even when offline!
Just come home from a trip? Share your own travel knowledge and help other travellers… go on, it's good travel karma.