Any foreigner who visits Korea or goes to live there quickly finds out that you've got to be pretty open-minded to try out — any actually enjoy — most popular and more obscure national dishes. In most cases, you'll never quite find out all the ingredients.
If you're a culinary coward, Korea is no place for you. All the garlic is quite enough to scare some people away. Then, there's kimchi. This burning hot fermented cabbage dish is something you simply can't avoid when you go to Korea, and it's definitely an acquired taste. But that's nothing compared to live octopus with soy sauce — a perfect dish for those who love living dangerously. This “dish” can and does kill people who don't chew enough and who get the octopus stuck inside their esophagus.
The various interesting liquors are, I think, the crown on Korean food. I tried sweet plum liquor, milky rice liquor, and potato liquor. Insamju, a liquor made with an intact ginger root that remains in the bottle, became my favorite. It's supposed to be good for your immune system and an aphrodisiac too.
Nothing prepared me (a vegetarian!) for Bem Ju. Snake liquor. You see, I used to raise garter snakes as a kid and I got quite used to cleaning out the terraria in which the snakes were kept. Snake feces have a distinctive smell, but that's something you get over after a while.
I'd forgotten all about my garter snakes and their feces when I was at a party, and the host pulled out a bottle of Bem Ju. As with insamju, the special ingredient remains within the bottle. This bottle contained a thin, long snake.
"It's especially for men," my host said. "You know, for their stamina. To make them stronger. You probably don't want to try it."
The adventurer in me couldn't say no to the liquor, and the feminism of my 19-year old self obviously couldn't forego the opportunity to prove my host, a university professor, wrong about women. I'm strong, and I can take on the snake liquor. The liquor tasted exactly like the garter snake terrarium I owned as a kid had smelled. I gagged but managed to swallow. I never tried it again after that.
Would You Try Korean Poo Liquor?
English and Japanese tabloids have recently written about one Korean alcoholic beverage I didn't get the chance to try. I'd never even heard of it, and a Japanese journalist who asked random young Koreans about the liquor found the liquor — called Ttongsul — is definitely a thing of the past. They didn't know it existed and certainly didn't want to try any.
So, why poop? And what kind of poop? Ttongsul can be made with human feces. Japanese journalist Yuka Uchida spoke to one of the last ttongsul makers, Dr Lee Chang Soo.
Chicken or dog feces were also traditionally used to make ttongsul, but human feces were most commonly used because they are readily available. Traditional Korean medicine uses a wide variety of ingredients that we would consider unpleasant today, including human placenta. But why human feces liquor?
Apparently, it is believed that ttongsul can cure a wide variety of ailments, including cuts, bruises, broken bones, pain, and epilepsy. During Korea's more brutal past, it wasn't uncommon for indentured servants to receive beatings. Apparently, drinking ttongsul would cut the healing time in half.
Ttongsul can be made in at least three different ways. Placing a bamboo stick in a chamber pot with feces and alcohol and leaving it there for a few months while it ferments, then extracting the ttongsul from the bamboo stick, is one method. It's the most time-consuming one. Yuka Uchida's documentary shows Dr Lee fermenting a child's feces in water. Later on, non-glutinous rice is added to the water.
A third and simpler method simply involves adding feces to soju, a neutral-tasting liquor that is made from rice or sweet potatoes. This method is much quicker, but the results are apparently not as good.
Today, you won't bump into ttongsul by chance in Korea. If you want some, either because you are a dare-devil or because you have a broken bone and like the idea of cutting your healing time in half, you'll have to have a good look around for very traditional restaurants or people like Dr Lee.
If you're not going to Korea any time soon, you could always... try making your own. At least one of the ingredients is certainly within your reach.
So, what's it like? Yuka Uchida — who was shown vomiting after drinking the concoction — sums it up:
"It tastes like rice wine but when I breathe out of my nose it smells like poo.