What exactly is 술 안주?

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Diane and I need your help: what exactly is 술 안주, or sul anju?

For those of you who aren’t Korean, or have never gotten drunk with Koreans, sul anju is a catch-all phrase describing the food one eats while drinking alcohol. Koreans think drinking on an empty stomach is bad for you, though they’re not too worried about the quantity of the booze itself. So whether you’re drinking a bottle of soju with dinner (the first stage), or going on to drink more at the next establishment (the second stage), you’ll always have something to eat on the table and usually something more substantial than peanuts.

This much, we know. But what’s a little tricky for us is that the foods Koreans might consider sul anju aren’t limited to the kind of food we in the U.S. think of as bar snacks.  Typical anju includes things like dried squid; 전, jeon, or savory pancakes; and a platter of tofu topped high with spicy pork and kimchi.  But you can even consider all the meat you eat from the grill anju if you’re drinking while you eat. It seems like you can’t really say there are foods that are only for eating with alcohol.  At the least, it seems pretty clear that sul anju never includes shiksa, the rice and soup/stew that’s served at the end of the meal.

The issue of what constitutes sul anju is the kind of thing Diane and I thought we knew until we got down to the business of defining it for the cookbook. We had asked her friend Eunhee to recommend a good place to eat and drink, and even though it was some of the best food we had in Seoul, the meal left us more befuddled than anything.

She took us to a place called 행락원, or Haengnagwhun, in the Nonhyundong neighborhood south of the river. Her friends had told her what we had to try: raw blue crabs marinated in a spicy sauce; a cold dish of buckwheat jelly tossed with buckwheat sprouts (similar to what we later ate in Bongpyeong), and a clear stew flavored with fish roe. And since the goal was to drink as well as to eat, we got a bottle of 매취순, maechisun, or wine made out of maesil plums (the same as Japanese ume plums).

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I’ll leave the wine description to Diane, but I was amazed by the freshness and sharpness of everything we ate. It was the first time I’d tried memilssak-mukmuchim, the buckwheat salad. When muk, the firm jelly, is made out of buckwheat instead of mung beans or acorns, it has a much smoother, more tender texture, more like cheese than jello. The sprouts were the perfect crisp counterpoint, as were the vinegary dressing and the fragrant sesame oil.

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The blue crabs were served with a side of yellow fish roe and plenty of lettuce. It was salty but refreshing, the way raw seafood is when it’s super-fresh. It went well with our drinks, but it also went so well on top of rice, it’s what made me begin to wonder, “What makes this anju?”

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The fish roe stew was definitely not anju, since it was in the “dinner” section of the menu. The proper thing would probably have been to order it with a couple of bowls of rice after we had finished eating the other dishes as our anju, but it was so good, I didn’t mind having it with us longer. It had that clean, clear flavor of good seafood-based broths, stuffed full of zucchini and 팽이, paengi (or enoki) mushrooms.

So what do you think? What part of our meal would you consider sul anju?  What’s your favorite thing to eat as sul anju?  I have a feeling it really doesn’t matter though, that the point might be less than to define the food you eat while you’re drinking as to be drinking while you’re eating.

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9 Responses to “What exactly is 술 안주?”

  1. Michael Warshauer Says:

    This is all very mysterious stuff to me, especially raw crabs, and shiksa, a word with an entirely different meaning in Yiddish.

    I’ve had raw oysters and clams, and raw fish and shrimp, but there’s something odd about crabs that would cause me to hesitate.

    Buen provecho,
    Mike

  2. lina Says:

    Sul anju is some of the best food, just like Japanese izakayas! But I think it’s the sul that makes it particularly tasty. Or is the sul vehicle through which we gather to eat? hehe..

  3. David Says:

    I never really thought about it, but I would have to say tha anju is definitely something more than ‘bar snacks’ for Koreans. It may have started to allow people to drink more since you get drunk faster on empty stomach (at least this is why I eat anju sometimes–;-)). But since you don’t want to get too full, I find that most anju tends to be vegetable or meat, and not carb based.

    I think the traditional Korean alcohol drinks allow you wider have range of choices for anju than let’s say for wine. When I drink wine, I wouldn’t eat squid or anything fishy. I also tend not to eat anything spicy or food having too strong of a flavor that may overpower the wine. But with alcohol like soju, virtually anything works. So theoretically, there is no limitation.

    I think anju is probably a cultural thing that probably doesn’t really have an adequate equivalence in the US. It is definitely more than just bar snacks, and it isn’t exactly appetizers. It is really a mini-meal that is there for the purpose of enjoying alcohol. And I do love it.

  4. Michael Warshauer Says:

    Maybe this food category has a counterpart in the botanas in Mexico?

    Buen provecho,
    Mike

  5. Grace Says:

    I thought about botanas, but the biggest reason the comparison didn’t work for me is precisely what David identifies–that there is no limitation, whereas botanas are more or less specific snacks, right? Like chicharrones, chiles rellenos…mmmm, I’m remembering that awesome botana platter at El Biche Pobre: https://oneforkonespoon.wordpress.com/2007/08/17/delicious-pork-fat-at-el-biche-pobre/. I don’t feel like I ever saw chicharrones being eaten as dinner food, whereas a lot of anju foods will be eaten as dinner food as well. But maybe I’m mistaken about botanas? I really like David’s point, that soju and Korean alcohol in general goes well with pretty much all flavors in Korean cooking.

  6. Eugene Auh Says:

    Here’s my take on Sul Anju

    1. Generally salty in nature or has a salty compliment/condiment such as fried chicken.
    2. Can be eaten in incremental pieces, usually without the use of cutlery. Peanuts, ojingo, fruit…the blue crab you have in your blog is supposed to be eaten with the lettuce as ssam so I think this isn’t a violation of this loose rule of Anju.
    3. Usually food that you don’t see paired with shiksa (roasted ojingo is almost never eaten with bap)
    4. I’ve been seeing more (and have been eating more) muchims with liquor lately. This does need some chopsticks, but I still think this falls under the rubric of anjus since I rarely see a full-blown muchim with hotness and veggies or seafood served with shiksa (aside from doganee muchim). I also think muchim is one of my favorite Korean sub-categories that has yet to be discovered by the foodie world. It’s wonderful with a grain-based liquor or beer.

  7. Randall Lee Says:

    I can understand the befuddlement, because when I tried to think of it in terms of categorizing it, there really is no strict definition of anju.

    Rather than as a category of food, perhaps anju is more like a concept. Anju is just something that goes along with drinking. It’s something to have on the table and munch on, because drinking alone would be a bit “shim shim hae”. There is the functional value of easing an empty stomach, but I think the prevailing function is that Koreans need to have something to eat while drinking, and that’s the normal expectation when drinking. For example, if you invite people to your place to drink, and all you bring out is a bottle of soju, the natural question to follow would be, “Do you have any anju?” When someone asks that question they are not asking you to whip up bossam or some kind of moochim. They just want something (perhaps easy to eat, a bit salty or refreshing) to munch on while they drink. This could be as simple as potatoe chips or saewookkang or popcorn. It doesn’t matter. But, it wouldn’t be slices of American cheese or plain bread either.

    I agree with some of the other posts that it’s more akin to a cultural thing. It’s not like bar snacks or appetizers. People go to bars, and just drink. Perhaps if they are hungry, they have the option to order some food. But it is normal to sit at a bar and just drink. In Korea, even if the bar is completely Americanized, my guess is that most of them would still have at least a limited menu of anju, because that is what the patrons would expect.

    Thus, from this cultural notion that sool alone is shim shim hae, and you want something else to fully enjoy your alcohol, comes a wide breadth of types of anju’s. As a general matter, I think categorically, anju is something that is easier to eat (but not always the case). It can have strong flavors, like some moochims may be a bit spicy. Depending on the type of alcohol you may not want that kind of anju. If you are drinking scotch, I don’t know if bossam and moochims are your ideal anju.

    Here’s a short list of anju’s that I thought of: ojinguh, peanuts, soondae, jun, grilling of various inner gizzards (yang, gopchang, etc), mook moochip, golbaeni moochim, bossam, donkatsu, fruits, chips, even jungoel (sometimes a little tang is nice and soothing to the stomach while drinking), fish cakes, fried beef (sort of like tangsooyuk without the sauce), fried chicken, etc. etc. I think all of the above can go along with soju and beer. Vodka, scotch and others, I think not necessarily the case.

    Thus, when you went to the recommended drinking place for anju, the owner probably had a menu of stuff that he thinks goes along with drinking. It could be some variation of a more traditional shiksa dish (including, some kind of tang or even jungoel) that they sell as anju.

    Maybe for purposes of the book, you can go through your top ten favorite anjus that were slightly different from the “traditionally” known anjus. I think a pojangmacha menu is definitely a “traditionally” known anju menu.

  8. Grace Says:

    Randall, thank you so much for the thoughtful analysis! For those of you don’t know Korean “shim shim hae” means boring or a little dull. In the context of food, it also means that it’s a little undersalted, so when Randall says sul or alcohol alone is shim shim hae, that means it’s both boring and lacking something, almost lonesome, if you don’t mind me getting a little melodramatic. It’s a good way to think about it, as a cultural concept. In that sense, it is somewhat similar to Spanish tapas/pintxos and Mexican botanas, since those cultures don’t believe in drinking without eating either.

  9. Quyển 12 chương 3 - Legendary Moonlight Sculptor VN Says:

    […] “Tôi thấy mì Ramen là một ý tưởng khá hay. Nếu kĩ tính hơn, chúng ta có thể mang theo gạo và một ít Sul anju.” […]

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