Saturday, September 3, 2016

A Boozy Evening in Seoul.

Veronica Tae-Ahn Kang">eronica Tae-Ahn Kang, of Gastro Tours Seoul,serving the makgeolli, a slightly sweet alcoholic beverage native to Korea.

Tonight we had a bit of foodie fun.  When I was researching things to do in Seoul, I stumbled upon a food tour - more specifically, a soju brewmaster tour offered by a company called Gastro Tour Seoul.   The tour description sounded interesting and George was on board with doing it so I signed us up.


Anguk Station is just about a 15 minute walk from our apartment so we took a casual stroll to the station.  Neither George nor I like to be late so we arrived well ahead of the 6pm meeting time.

He's the only travel partner who is always happy to pose for photos :-)

Seoul is really wired.  WiFi is readily available in many locations.
I had no idea who we were meeting up so I just kept my eye out for anyone who looked like they could be a tour leader.  Then I saw her.  It was her bag that gave her away.  It had the words, "Gastro Tour Seoul" printed on it.  I walked up to the woman and asked if she was with the tour company and leading the brewmaster tour.  Her big smile gave away her answer.

She introduced herself as Veronica and I immediately recognized her name.  She was the woman who had been responding to all my email inquiries including the one confirming our reservation on this tour.  Veronica had also sent me a last minute email indicating that she had two guests from Hong Kong who had booked the same tour as us and they would bringing along a movie camera and recording the tour with guests.  She wanted to know if we were okay with this or not.  If not, she would ask them to pick another date.  I ran this by George and he had no issues nor did I so I told Veronica to go ahead.

In addition to the two people from Hong Kong, there were two more guests as well.  Since we arrived early, we had to wait a few minutes for two to arrive - we would meet up with the Hong Kong guests at another location.

Soon enough, a young American man and his Korean girlfriend showed up.  We all introduced ourselves and as we walked, we got to know a little about each other.  The guy is a freelance luxury lifestyle and travel writer.  I wasn't in the mood for small talk so  I decided to just stick close to George - he's far more interesting to be with.

Veronica started our night with a walk through the neighborhood.  I had no idea where we were but the street she took us on was lined with very nice shops and restaurants. It wasn't at all crowded but Veronica assured us that would change once night fell.



In no time, we reached a very familiar intersection in the Bukchon neighborhood - I had crossed this very same spot yesterday. It was here that we met up with the twosome from Hong Kong - another pair of early 30 somethings involved in the travel industry.  They seemed nice enough but I really wasn't in the mood to socialize so I stuck with George.  

Soon, we left the commercial area behind and found ourselves taking in a view of the sun setting over the rooftops.  Veronica pointed out a few highlights, including Gyeongbokgung Palace.


As usual, I was lagging behind everyone else.  I was so preoccupied with taking a photo of the setting sun (I do not know how to properly take a photo of the setting sun) that at one point, I turned around and didn't see anyone.  It was the young Korean girl who shouted out to me to catch my attention.  Okay, so she's nice.

The group was starting to walk down a quiet neighborhood street filled with traditional hanok homes.  Based on my recollection of the map of Seoul, I quickly surmised we were in the Bukchon neighborhood.  This was the part of Seoul that I had attempted to get to on my walk yesterday morning.  I started taking photos of the traditional style Korean wooden homes.  They have so charm and character.



The group stopped at the start of a street. I don't know the name of it but it's the one that offers a view of the neighborhood set against the modern buildings of current day Seoul.  Tonight, a young couple, dressed in traditional Korean hanbok, was taking photos.  They were the perfect subject for my photo - showing how modern and traditional blend beautifully.








Veronica was rushing us along because I think we were late for our appointment with the soju brewmaster.  Too bad because I would have really enjoyed more of stroll through Bukchon.  Unfortunately, with our tight schedule, I don't think we'll have time to come back to this place before we leave either Seoul or Korea .-(

It was almost dark by the time we made it to the front door of a hanok home.  We took our shoes off and donned the complimentary slippers before entering inside.

There, we were greeted byTaek Sang Kim, a 10th generation brew master of traditional Korean alcoholic beverages.  Displayed in the entry hall of the home were bottles of the beverages that Mr. Kim makes and sells.

The clay pot on the right is a traditional pot for distilling the alcohol.

We then headed down into the basement which is where Mr. Kim's brew kitchen as I would call it was located.  It was a small space that really was a kitchen and is now devoted to making the alcoholic drinks.  A table had been set up and we all took seats around it.  At each place setting were a series of what looked like Chinese tea cups.

Around one side of the room were large porcelain containers used for fermentation.


With Veronica translating, we learned how Mr. Kim produces various types of Korean alcoholic beverages using methods passed down through 10 generations of family on his mother’s side.  His methods are precise and it would not surprise if nothing is written down.  Everything is done by sight, feel and taste.  There is no doubt that Mr. Kim is an artisan and indeed he has been designated Seoul’s Intangible National Treasure number 8.


Mr. Kim began our lesson by showing us and explaining to us the yeast that is used in the fermentation process.   The looked like small rocks and felt like such.  If I remember correctly, different types of yeast are used to produce different types of alcohol.


Mr. Kim also showed us the contents of several of the fermentation pots.  Rice is boiled, mixed with the yeast and water.  The mixture is placed in the pots and allowed to ferment.

He then demonstrated the distillation process using a traditional Korean claypot that essentially works like a double boiler. I got to help Mr. Kim wrap a coil of dough around the separation between the upper and lower pots.  This is done to prevent evaporation. 


The pot is then put atop the stove and in no time, the distillation process begins when the alcohol drips out.

Mr. Kim holding up the bottom half of a distillation pot.  Behind him is a fermentation pot.

Then it was time to taste the fruits of Mr. Kim's labor.  It was a progression of brews.  We started with something that had only been fermented for a short while.  It was just slightly alcoholic and a bit sweet.  I don't drink alcohol but I had to try some.  It wasn't bad.

The next thing I tried set my tastebuds spinning....in a very good way!  Mr. Kim had set out a small plate of what I would describe as the dregs of the brewing process - rice mixed with the yeast and a bit of the brew.  In fact, what I was tasting was yiwhaju, a special kind of liquor that you can eat like yogurt.  Whatever it's called, I really like the stuff.   They had laid out some slices of apple and I was spreading the yiwahju on the apples.  It was delicious.  Mr. Kim got a kick out of watching me enjoying my own way of eating the yiwahju.

The creamy looking brew is makgeolli, the slightly amber looking brew is yakju.

As the brews got stronger, the liquid got clearer. By the time we got to the clear stuff, I was down to barely sipping it.  This was soju and I found it too harsh for my palate.  I don't know the proper term to describe it but it was burning on the way down the hatch.   If I drank, I would definitely be a lightweight drinker.  George enjoys his Scotch and I think that even he found this stuff to be a bit harsh.


Mr. Kim was very generous with the samples and was enjoying having everyone gushing over his brews.  All the while, he never had a sip of anything himself.  A true sign of anyone who makes food and drink - they love watching the reactions of their guests more than eating or drinking what they've made. 


Time flew by because I knew it, we had to say our goodbye's and thank you's to Mr. Kim.  Sadly for him, no one bought any of his products.  I had thought maybe the Hong Kong folks would indulge but they left empty hand as did all the rest of us.

Next, Veronica took us to a neighborhood, family owned and operated restaurant called Jang Ja's Nabi for dinner.




We sat on the floor, around a rectangular table.  George and I took up positions near the air conditioner.  I was dying from the heat and George was not faring all that much better.

George was on one side of me and the Hong Kong woman on the other.  I struck up a conversation with her in Cantonese.  We traded opinions on what we thought of Korean food.  It's definitely not one of my favorite cuisines but I hope to learn to better appreciate it in the days to come.


As Veronica was ladling out cups of makgeolli, plates of banchan were delivered to the table.  In my opinion, the banchan is the best part of the meal.  The main course was a stew which I passed up because I was enjoying nibbling on the different dishes.


Chap chae.


The dish on the right was steamed egg which I absolutely love to eat.  I could've devoured the entire bowl all by myself!

In contrast to the steamed egg, I haven't figured out if I like the egg pancakes or not.

Dinner turned out to be a very quick affair.  Before I  knew it, it was time to give our thanks and say goodbye to Verornica.  Turns out she is the tour company owner and she's working hard to build up her business so if you're planning a trip to Seoul be sure to check out her tour options on her website.

Veronica pointed us in the direction to get out to the main street.  It was then that I realized we were in Insadong.  I may have only been in Seoul for two days but I knew exactly how to get us back to our apartment.  Who needs a GPS? :-)

It's our last day in Seoul tomorrow and we have a big day planned.  With all that I've done and eaten today, I am one tired traveler.  It's time to wrap up this posting and get to sleep!

Goodnight from Seoul!