Spending my teens as a “Ticktocker” in the National Charity League, I’ve always known which knife to use, how to fold my napkin and everything one could possibly need to know about tea-party protocol. Mealtime etiquette plays a unique role in nearly every culture around the world. It is easy to confuse one’s unfamiliarity to a custom as a lack of respect or self-awareness.
Last Thursday, I shared a meal and drinks with four Korean-Americans at Space Mabi. This is what a learned:
My dinner companions compared and contrasted the drinking habits of Koreans and Americans. The general consensus was that it is very common for American adults to enjoy a night out without drinking or completely abstain from drinking alcohol altogether. In Korea, this is very uncommon.
In the Korean workplace, it is not only typical, but it is an expectation that you drink with colleagues.
As it is Asian custom to respect elders, the most senior person at the firm leads the night out. Employees are not permitted to leave until the most senior person departs. In traditional days, Koreans drank on specific lunar holidays. Presently, alcohol is consumed regardless of the calendar date. The Koreans see a night of drinks as a way to encourage strong fellowship and facilitate an open-dialog.
The ancestors often drank a glass of Takju (rice-wine) with a light Saecham (breakfast food) before they hit the fields for work. Historically, on New Years, Koreans celebrated by throwing back soju shots to ward off disease and bad spirits. Today, soju is a Korean essential. Traditional soju is made from barley, rice and a variety of grains. However, the traditional methods of production were banned during the 1960’s rice shortage in Korea. Today, the drink is clear and light in flavor and fragrance due to the simplicity of ingredients. Based on the distillery, the soju may have hints of flowers and fruits flavoring. Most Americans know soju as a cheap diluted mixture of pure ethyl alcohol with a hint of sweetener, found in a green bottle at nearly every grocery store. However, soju is available in a much higher quality where it undergoes extensive fermentation and distillation.
Soju can be mixed into a variety of drinks or consumed by itself. A Korean favorite is poktanju or “Drink-Bomb”. Poktanju is a shot of soju dropped into a pint of beer and consumed quickly, similar to an “Irish Car-Bomb”. Poktanju can also be made with other base-drinks such as soda, milk, tomato juice, coke and coffee. Poktanju is a very common drink of choice, especially when drinking with coworkers.
Soju is making waves into New York City. Given the range of alcohol content varieties available in soju, a beer and wine license (much cheaper and easier to obtain than a hard alcohol liquor license) is sufficient enough to serve soju in a restaurant. Similar to vodka labels, soju brands position themselves on differentiation of preparation. ‘Hwayo Soju’ plays music to the soju as it ages in the tanks!
The Soju Etiquette
Offering the drink
It is traditional that when a person gives an alcoholic drink to another adult, the person has to offer the drink respectfully with two hands.
Accepting the drink
When accepting a glass from an elder, one must hold the glass with two hands (left palm under the glass while holding the glass with the right hand) followed by a bow. When elders give alcohol to a younger person, the younger person should receive the drink politely and with gratitude by saying “thank you” and by then hitting the bottle.
Pouring the drink
When pouring a drink, the cup should be held with the right hand, and the wrist of your right hand held lightly with the left hand.
Drinking the drink
Instead of making eye-contact, like a “cheers” in western culture, the drinker turns away from the elder, and covers the mouth of the glass with their hands. The first drink must be finished in one shot (even if it is a beer).
After the drink
When the drink is empty, the drinker then pours the person who served them another shot, this starts a series of glass and bottle passes around the table.