On Making Makgeolli
Recently, in an effort to fill a vacuum of boredom with self-admiration and Instagram bragging rights, I decided that I would make my own Makgeolli [막걸리]. But, I think at the root of my decision lies something a bit more… Self-indulgent? Self-satisfying? Perhaps these almost pointless projects are simply a way to distract myself from the home-sick, the loneliness and isolation, and the boredom that can so easily overtake you when suspended in a culture that’s not your own.
Makgeolli is an alcoholic beverage that, if you have ever lived in Korea, you are very familiar with. It’s more artisanal and interesting than soju, much better than Korean beer, and yet still cheap and easy to find. It was originally known as a farmer’s liquor, which had a sort of rediscovery in 2009, when the obsession for “retro,” “traditional,” and “healthy” things gained popularity. Makgeolli is all of those things, while also showcasing sophisticated flavors and textures. The drink became so popular that, quite idiotically, the Korean government felt that the drink needed a more friendly name for tourists. They decided on “Drunken Rice,” which thankfully did not stick.
Makgeolli is made of three key ingredients: rice (easy), water (even easier), and nuruk (what?). I learned that nuruk [누룩] is the key ingredient which causes the unique fermentation process of the makgeolli. Nuruk is a complex mixture of mold and enzymes which grow naturally on damp flour-cakes that are left to sit in the Korean air. The nuruk, as a living chemistry of yeasts and mold, simultaneously breaks down rice into sugar, and consumes the sugar to create alcohol. Makgeolli does this process simultaneously, unlike wine, which simply transforms sugar, or beer, which must create sugar from the mash before yeast is added. Therefore, it’s not beer. It’s not wine. It’s makgeolli: its own unique beverage that is calculated magic. In my experience in this culture, I like to think of Makgeolli as the blood of Korea.
Every 3 months, my friends travel to Jeonju [전주] to visit the bloody beating heart of the country: Yetcheon Magkeolli [옛촌막걸리]. The Ajjuma there loves us like her own. She loves everyone like her own. Everyone loves everyone else like family. New friends come together, share the farmer’s liquor with each other, slap backs and slap shoulders and slap laughing lungs, and the whole loud place becomes plastered with new friendships that will last until you go home.
It’s this fake, fleeting magic that I wanted to touch with my own bare hands. I set out to the market to buy the ingredients.
It’s embarrassingly extrinsic, to be a foreigner looking for some weird artifact at a 500 year old market. “Silly waygook! He wants to make that shit-wine?” I imagine them laughing between bites of soondae [순대] and liver. Yes, I am a 260lb white male stumbling through the market asking for nuruk. The Ajjumas laugh while pointing me to a specialist.
In the middle of the market, an old woman sells the block of mold along with rice. When I point to the nuruk, I can see a glint in her eye. “Okay for magkeolli?” I ask in waygook shit-Korean. She must be over 90, but she moves like lightning, coming around with a cake. She makes me smell it, and says, “Where are you from?” “I am an American human” I say, again in my shit-Korean.
I ask for hep-sal [햅쌀].
Sal means uncooked rice. Hep-sal is the highest quality, and I am hoping they have some since it’s close to fall. This rice is picked at its youngest: the first harvested rice.
She says “not yet,” (I think) because it’s not quite time to harvest. Instead, she gives me chapsal [찹쌀], which takes me too long to read. “Service!” she says, adding another kilo to my bag. She says, “Magkeolli,” and holds up her wrinkled thumb like a 5 year old, signifying that this is the only god-damn rice in this entire market that I should be using to make some of that magic.
She grabs my hand like I’m a toddler, and leads me over to another store. She explains some things in Korean to the store owner, and bows. “Bye!” “Hello!” the store owner brings bowls and jars and funnels and linen bags. “Magkeolli!” he says, with another giant thumb pointing toward God. “Thank you!” I say, as I pay for everything and carry it through the market.
God damn, this feeling is euphoric! The waygook has conquered the market! He got what he wanted with his shit-Korean and child-like dependence on the help of others. I deserve more blog followers, I think, as I step into my car, feeling so accomplished.
The only thing poetic during the making process was touching the uncooked rice as I washed it 30 times. Squeezing the rough grains as they turned whiter became an almost fetishistic obsession for me. It felt good. I swirled the little grains of rice around, hypnotized by the grit pressing against my palms.
The rest of the steps felt more like science, as I battled against nature to control the rot of my rice. I soaked my rice overnight, cooked it in a steamer, measured and ground up the nuruk, and mixed it all together. I washed my hands with soju, and boiled everything that would touch the precious grains. I added a bit of water to the mixture, and began to press the cooked rice and nuruk in the jar for another twenty minutes, until the cooked rice felt like stiff pudding.
All that’s left is time. The nuruk begins eating the rice, producing sugar, eating the sugar, and producing alcohol: magic Korean blood.
And now I have booze that I could have purchased for a dollar at the corner store. But I suppose it tastes different. And I suppose I conquered some strange need to do whatever I want without regarding purpose. In some way, this connects me to the meaninglessness of my infancy. My aging fat body can linger in the fake magical wonder of doing something that makes no sense. Like a child, grabbing sand in the sandbox, crunching the grains, moving it between smooth fingers and thumbs, there is no purpose. I squat next to the pot of bubbling liquor like a 6 year old studying a bug. I shake the jar just to watch the bubbles.
And I forget how hard life can be, when you are an alien half-way across the world and you can’t talk with your mom on the 1st anniversary of your father’s death, because when you aren’t busy, she is working, and when she’s not busy, you are working, and you weren’t home when he passed away so suddenly. His plane ticket to Korea, his first visit, got cancelled, and everything has felt frozen since that day. Except for this small pot of changing rice. I shake the jar just to watch the bubbles.