A spoonful of Ewhaju marks an 800-year-old Korean tradition
Ewhaju is both a Korean alcohol you eat with a spoon, and a mystery rice wine no one has heard of. Despite being over 800 years old, ewhaju is unknown to almost everyone in this hard-drinking country. It tastes, looks, and feels like yogurt more than anything else. It’s a creamy, off-white color, sweet, fermented and a bit chalky. It is very similar to makgeolli but much more heavily concentrated.
Ehwaju can be found at Baekseju Maeul, a spacious, well-known second floor bar in Jongno that looks down on the 14th century Bosingak belfry. It specializes in Korean wine and is one of the only places in Seoul you can find ewhaju. (One of the others, Tricycle in Hwajeong, was closed around the time of this writing.)
We ordered a single jar of ewhaju from a very bemused waiter — clearly it’s not a common order — with a plate of steamed kimchi and tofu, as well as some draft baekseju to wash it down. There were six of us, all expats, and none of us knew what to expect.
Ewhaju arrived in a 400 mL frosted glass jar with a large wooden serving spoon and small green lacquered bowls from which to eat the substance. It’s made off-site by Kooksoondang, a brewery famous for their baekseju.
It has a strong taste and after-taste and is best shared among friends at one of Baekseju Maeul’s long tables since it’s unlikely anyone will want to eat more than a quarter of the jar by themselves. It’s not that ewhaju tastes bad, though it’s not for everyone — it’s that it is strong. These are not Korean Jell-O shots but bowls of fermented pudding.
Registering at an intense 12.5 percent alc./vol., slurping it slowly down your throat, you begin to understand why solid alcohol has never become a trend. Ewhaju goes beautifully with steamed kimchi and tofu though because the salt and spice in the kimchi blends well with the fermented taste of the ewhaju.
Ewhaju is also not cheap — 40,000 won a jar — and they only sell about one jar of it a day, according to a Baekseju Maeul manager.
Part of this writer’s interest in ewhaju was piqued by rumors it would become the next big thing. Like the demise of God, it appears those rumours have been greatly exaggerated. Ewhaju, rather than becoming the next flavored soju-level craze, actually reveals a rare, alcoholic gem and a peek into an ancient drinking culture.
Ewhaju is not new at all but is in fact very, very old. It’s a recipe that dates back to the Koryo Dynasty, a period of Korean history that lasted from the mid-tenth to the late-fourteenth century. Though ewha means pear blossom, it is, in fact, rice-based.
There is very little information about it anywhere. If you Google “ewhaju,” you are redirected to the Ewha Women’s University. But there is one YouTube video, made as part of the “Makgeolli UCC” government campaign to spread information about makgeolli that explains the process of making ewhaju.
First, rice and pear blossoms are brewed up and fermented into a cake, dried in pine, and left to mold. This yields the ewha paste. More rice is then rinsed, boiled, molded into donuts, boiled again, and drained.
Once the donuts are kneaded, one puts in the ewha paste and leaves it to ferment in a white ceramic pot. It is then diluted with water until it has the right consistency. According to the video, ewhaju was used traditionally for weaning babies, put in boxes for travelers and as a “nutritious drink for the old and infirm.”
According to the manager at Baekseju Maeul, the substance is dried out four times and redone four times, as opposed to regular makgeolli, which is just done once. It takes about two weeks to make one batch hence the high price.
As you look out onto the Bosingak belfry, you have to imagine, as you eat it, a Korean family 700 years ago, seated cross-legged on the floor in their village home, sipping white spoonfuls from their bowls. A parent spreads it on their screaming infant’s gums, and an oldest son, off to write his Confucian exams in Seoul, is getting a box of it prepared to put into his satchel. An infirm grandfather is propped against the wall, while a dutiful son spoons it into his mouth.
While it isn’t for everyone, ewhaju is for the adventurous drinker who wants to sample the past to learn about the present.
Info for Baekseju Maeul:
2F 256, Gwancheol-dong, Jongno-gu