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Japanese and Korean drinking and eating customs

Korean soju

Korean soju

Over a year ago while vacationing in Osaka, Japan, I inquired with my hotel concierge about a nearby lounge or bar that my wife and I could go to before dinner one night. He gave me a puzzled look, which I read as a need to clarify to him what one was. He responded: “In Japan, we generally don’t drink without eating so the closest thing to that here typically serves food with alcohol.” (Not entirely true, we found a tiny (albeit hidden) lounge nearby that sold only beer and spirits.) But what he told me that day made me realize something about the Japanese and Korean drinking culture: booze and food typically go together.

Growing up, whenever I saw my Korean dad drink beer just by himself or with a bunch of his friends, they always drank alcohol with snacks. These snacks commonly consisted of a medley of raw vegetables accompanied with a salty dipping paste, or chewy dry squid (ojinga) that have been toasted, salted and cut into strips. These drinking snacks are referred to as sakana (sometimes otsumami) in Japanese and anju in Korean.

From left to right: salmon skin, cucumbers & carrots with gochujang, squid beaks

From left to right: salmon skin, cucumbers & carrots with gochujang, squid beaks

If you are drinking in Japanese and Korean restaurants sometimes you are presented with a small complimentary dish that is at little cost to the restaurant (and sometimes something that might get discarded otherwise). For instance, if you are dining at the sushi bar and are between dishes, the sushi chef might place a little bowl of salty strips of salmon skin in front of you to snack on with your beer. Or at times something like seasoned and grilled squid beaks will appear from the kitchen for you and your friends to munch on while you all are working on another round of drinks. In Korean restaurants, you may be done with your main orders but you and your friend(s) are still hanging around and drinking. A complimentary dish of raw carrots and cucumbers with fermented bean paste (doenjang or gochujang) for dipping may be inconspicuously plopped down in front of you.

On a larger scale, most all dishes served in Japanese izakayas can be considered sakana due to them being typically consumed with alcohol. In some casual Korean restaurants, dishes like seasoned pig trotter or fried chicken — both excellent with beer and/or soju (rice liquor) — are also considered anju. If you attend a noraebang (karaoke) outing with a bunch of Koreans, a large platter of fruit and ojinga (not complimentary) arrives alongside your soju and beer even if you are still digesting your most recent meal.

Elsewhere: Spanish tapas, a cheese course at the end of a meal with wine and hot wings with beer all tell me what other cultures like to eat while drinking. What am I missing?

For sakana:

Shoya Izakaya, 6035 Peachtree Road, Doraville. 770-457-5555

Miso Izakaya, 619 Edgewood Ave., Atlanta. 678-701-0128

Sushi Yoko, 7124 Peachtree Industrial Boulevard, Norcross. 770-903-9348

Try (depending on availability): Chicken or geso karaage, edamame, onigiri (grilled rice triangles) with beer. Sashimi with sake.

For anju:

Sun and Moon Cafe, 3555 Gwinnett Place Dr., Duluth. 678-417-6755

Dongnae Bangnae, 3042 Oakcliff Road, Atlanta. 678-205-4321

Iron Age, 2131 Pleasant Hill Road, Duluth. 678-334-5242

Try (depending on availability): Samgyeopsal (grilled pork bellies), pajeon, jokbal (pig trotter) — all good with beer, soju and makgeolli (Korean rice beer).

- by Gene Lee, Food and More blog

9 comments Add your comment

Hungry Gringo

August 17th, 2011
8:34 am

Beer pong and Waffle House


August 17th, 2011
8:36 am

My grandmother always told me that “if you’re gonna drink, you have to nibble.” Seems to work for her. She’s turning 90 in January. I like to think of her as “pickled.”


August 17th, 2011
10:04 am

I so miss the Izakaya food we enjoyed while living in Tokyo. Such a variety of delicious, small plates! I miss the ume sours, too!


August 17th, 2011
10:32 am

Good to see somethings are universal. Bars that give out free salty snacks so that you’ll want more to drink. Some of those things sound better than beer nuts at least.


August 17th, 2011
1:16 pm

Gene, I may be off base, but my observation is that drinking unpunctuated by nibbling is an Anglo-American habit. Partaking in small complimentary bites and ordering snacks throughout the night (or day!) are the norm in lots of places in the world, from what I have seen.

carla roqs

August 17th, 2011
1:38 pm

i love the exposure to cultures from around the world, do your thing Gene!! unfortunately, i think that lorenzo is correct- too many Americans drink just to drink and get drunk.

Gene Lee

August 17th, 2011
1:56 pm

@Lorenzo – I don’t refute that nibbling while drinking is norm in lots of places in the world, which is why I mentioned a few at the end that were obvious to me. I’m just more intimate with the ones here I scribed.

I’m also making the point that eating and drinking seem attached at the hip in these cultures whereas in England or America, drinking and eating can part ways with each other at some point.

Otherwise, I’m wondering what some other examples are and what dishes are typically consumed with alcohol. If you have any experiences/observations, let us know!

Atlanta Native

August 17th, 2011
4:57 pm

@ C.A. Sushi Mito in Norcross has an Izakaya menu now.


August 19th, 2011
11:07 am

I’m American, always have been, and have been drinking for about 20 yrs now. Still, I’ve always wondered why we don’t eat more while we’re drinking. I feel like my association of alcohol with food is innate, not learned. I’ve ALWAYS craved food while drinking. Maybe it has something to do with modern courtship- you don’t want food in your teeth and on your breath while you and a potential mate consume liquid courage in hopes of a love connection. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense. Food makes booze better and vice versa.