Momojein’s executive chef has the lowdown on soju, the Korean spirit that’s winning fans worldwide.
*Featured in Crave’s July 2016 issue
Text by Cherrie Yu, illustrations by Tim Cheng
What is soju?
There are two types of soju: distilled and diluted. Traditional distilled soju is fermented with grain, or rice for premium soju. However, rice-distillated soju was banned in 1960s owing to a nationwide rice and grain shortage, which led to the closure of many traditional breweries. Some switched to sweet potatoes and imported products to make diluted soju, which is now more common than distilled. Diluted soju is made using a similar method to gin and vodka, and can contain up to 95 per cent alcohol.
Do different regions have their own types of soju?
Different provinces in Korea ferment soju using whatever grain is grown locally, such as millet, hulled millet and barley, and they add herbs to make medicinal sojus. While traditional distilled sojus are fermented only with wheat and grain (not herbs or fruits), each province’s popular ingredients are often added to the rice fermentation process. In Jeju, for example, foxtail millet is incorporated to make Gosorisul soju. In Pyeongchang, foxtail millet and broomcorn are added. Even the rice grown in different regions varies in taste and texture, which affects the flavour of the soju: Seoul rice, for example, is used to make Samhaeju.
What makes up high- quality soju, in terms of flavour and texture?
Today, only premium soju is fermented with rice, but it can be made with other grains as long as the ingredients are Korean. Premium soju must adhere to old brewing techniques and (often secret) processes passed down through the generations. Some breweries add local ingredients to their premium soju, such as pear and ginger to Andong soju and Leegangju, and cinnamon to Gamhongro soju. Distilled sojus are fine, smooth, aromatic and full of flavour from the rice, millet, hulled millet and other distinctive regional ingredients, and most have alcohol content of 30 to 45 per cent.
How is soju best served?
Just like wine, soju goes best with ingredients that grow in the same place as the grain from which it was made. Koreans enjoy insamju (medicinal soju made with ginseng) with samgyetang (ginseng chicken broth), but it also goes well with various Korean soups, meat and fish dishes.
How is soju drunk around the world?
Traditional distilled soju is usually drunk neat or with water. But diluted soju is sometimes released mixed with fruit, tonic water and juices. In Korea, sometimes soju is served with beer, a combination known as somac.
What’s the deal with Andong soju?
There are two types of Andong soju produced in Korea by two female artisans, Park Jae-seo and Jo Ok-hwa. Park uses a traditional fermentation method passed down from 500 years ago. The South Korean government has designated the two artisans as Korean Food Grand Master #6 and #20 respectively.
What is the drinking etiquette for soju?
We have a lot of drinking etiquettes in Korea. For example, younger people receiving soju from an older friend must receive it with two hands (left hand on the glass, right hand on left arm) and turn 90 degrees away from the senior to drink.
Executive chef of Momojein
A specialist in Korean and Italian cuisines, in his native South Korea Lim oversaw restaurants such as Eataly and frequently appeared on TV cooking series such as the Olive Show. In 2015, he came to Hong Kong as executive chef at Momojein, offering creative interpretations of traditional Korean dishes.