[Korea culture and travel] Beer and chicken(chimaek)

(Media1=William Harlow) This story actually starts in Munich, Germany. I was there for a few weeks back in the early 1990’s and had the chance to spend a few evenings in the world famous Hofbrauhaus.

It was your quintessential German beer hall. Beer hall girls in traditional outfits carried unbelievable numbers of liter mugs of good German beer. Paper bags came with whole rotisserie cooked chicken dripping in butter along with French fires. Bands played traditional German songs. People sang and danced. So, what does this have to do with Korea?

Koreans have taken many cultural ideas from around the world and made them their own special customized part of their own culture. One of these is what Koreans actually refer to as a Hof. The basics of the German hof are all there. The beer (the Korean word for beer is maekju) and chicken are all part of the equation and they are also a great place to spend some time with you friends; however, other than these factors, the Korean version of the hof takes on a life of its own. Still, hof’s are prolific throughout Korea and can vary from very simple and inexpensive mom and pop places to very elaborate, sophisticated places with price’s to match. Still, they all focus on the basics: beer and chicken.

Almost every subway stop and village in Korea has a hof nearby. The cheapest hofs are also sometimes the best. Your basic hof is just a store front with a few tables and a counter. Here you can get draft beer by the glass or pitcher (draft beer is called saeng maekju or raw beer as a direct translation). You can also get fried chicken with a few cubes of radish on the side.

These places are basic but good. The beer is Korean, cold, and tastes similar to national brands of basic American beer. The chicken is also good; however, you need to watch how chicken is butchered in Asia. A lot of times it is just chopped with a cleaver regardless of where the joints are so watch out for where the bones are. When my wife and I were dating, we almost lived at a similar mom and pop hof near her apartment and still have fond memories of it.

After your mom and pop hofs there is another step up the quality and price ladder; however, still easily within range for a nice evening out with friends. These are the theme chain hofs. Their menus are more extensive. Most all still have chicken, potatoes, salads, and other snack type plates all geared to Korean tastes.

All will also have draft beer but may also have many types of bottled beers from Korea and around the world as well. Many of these hofs have themes such as western (cowboy type), music themes, artistic themes, but surprisingly no German Hof themes. Some are chains, some are independent, and I have never really been to a bad one.

Then there are the really upscale hofs. These are normally located in the nicer parts of town and on the upper floors of buildings. They are very nicely decorated, may have televisions, push buttons to summon wait staff, and have very extensive hof food and beer menus. They can also be very pricey. Of course most have very nice views as well.

One thing you will not find in a hof are the big liter mugs. Pitchers are 3000cc or 2000cc and glasses are normally 500cc. Your draft beer will be cold, but unless you are in a really upscale hof the beer will be a cold Korean lager such as Cass, Hite, OB, etc. One thing you do get at your table will be this hollow snack chips that I find tasteless but surprisingly addictive.

One other thing to look out for is what I call sauce deprivation. With some types of chicken you order and some types of fried potatoes you get dipping sauces such as mustard and ketchup. You never get enough and you have to be relentless to get a sufficient supply. This is one thing that is handy about the waiter button.

One other issue for tourists is that you may not find English speaking staff in the hofs. This can easily be overcome using the age old pointing at the menu. Most have bilingual menus and many have pictures of the food next to the food description and the price. So point to the item and hold up fingers as to how many you want.

I have found the hofs to be very versatile while I’m out on the town. They are great for beer stops while the wife is out shopping. They are good for a light dinner. Most of all, they are an ideal place to have a few beers with your friends without having to go to an expensive bar or restaurant. I highly recommend stopping into a hof next time you’re in Korea. Don’t worry. You won’t think you are in Germany.

Photo By Howard Jungchan Lee

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