Soju Seoul

by Kate Richards

Photography: Guillaume Luke Zachary and Hyun Gyu Yoo.

It’s hot. I sweat weaving in and out of Myeong-dong’s ubiquitous street food vendors, searching for anything ‘authentic’ amidst curly deep-fried potatoes on sticks, scallops with cheese, hotdogs, and lukewarm pomegranate juice. I don’t know what authentic really means in this context, but do know that – for me at least – Nirvana lies in a sweet spot somewhere between fermenty and spicy.

Friendly chat bounces between friends, but the sound of mundane tourist queries – directed at locals who speak very little English – piques my interest. People try to haggle, but you can’t haggle here.

The air smells ripe and I’m hopeful. No, that’s me; stale alcohol and chilli seep from open pores. A glass of sikhye – a sweet fermented rice drink – cools me down, though it’s slow to drink as a number of floaties now block the straw.

My shoes smell.

How do sandals even get smelly?

They say you usually can’t move for Chinese tourists in this part of town, but a recent ban on flights to South Korea by Beijing’s government – a response to the deployment of South Korea’s new missile defence systems – mean it’s quiet. The stalls hum away as usual, but between this ban, a presidential impeachment and the ever-present US military personal, who swan around between high rises and dive bars, political tensions run high.

We walk on to Jongno 3-ga Station – stopping for $2 convenience store beers on the way – a hyper-local meeting ground for central city workers and late night revelers. The food is distinctly different here, less tacky somehow, and the English speaking near stops. Instead of leaning stalls, there are pojangmacha – small tents with plastic stools to perch at, like a town of pop-up restaurants that appears every night.

The group takes their seats at an empty table. This woman is offering chicken feet fried in gochujang, sea snails, and not a lot else.

We order the feet.

A bowl of mussels arrive, cooked in fishy stock – a gift from the stallholder – pulled from their shells, they taste of the ocean. The feet are gelatinous and very spicy. Pure cartilage with little flecks of sesame and spring onion.

A white-haired man with a French horn stops and tries to join us. We play with his horn for a while before he carries on.

Someone orders a bottle of makgeolli and a bottle of soju, a mixture of sweetness and kerosene which make your head spin. The soju is empty so the woman brings another bottle. I’m rehearsing tomorrow’s apologies in my head already.

A few blocks back there was a stall owner selling odeng – long, flappy, fishcakes skewered onto bamboo sticks. They’re simmered in fish soup and sometimes brushed with chilli; six cost 500 Wan and come with a little cup of soup for everyone in the party. She’s not busy when I bound up enthusiastically to buy some.

“Annyeonghaseyo!” I say proudly, before reminding everyone that I used to have a Korean boyfriend who, “Taught me how to say that.”

Used to. I feel sad.

More soju.

Another rest stop sees a gift of fish soup like the one we just ate, and ramyun that we order, with a pickled radish banchan (traditional side) – the first we’ve received all evening. The vinegar that’s been poured over burns my lips a little.

Another beer sees me red-faced, like the punters sitting next door who want their photo taken. She’s 46! I can’t believe that’s true. We slurp hot noodles together and laugh about how badly my friends have aged. The couple next door leaves, and so do we.

It’s getting late. We stumble into a smoky gay club where you’re forced to order a fruit platter if you want to drink anything. Tangier pineapple than I’ve had anywhere before make me quietly glad about that.

I flick through the sticky clear file from behind the bar and choose a song to sing. Dreams by Fleetwood Mac begins, everyone’s cheering, the crowd’s a blur now. They’re laughing at, not with me, but I smile anyway.

It’s hot. I’m sweaty.