The traditional Korean rice wine Makgeolli is becoming increasingly popular with foreigners. One of them is Taru Salminen, a Finnish expat best known as a panelist on KBS TV talk show "Global Talk Show: Talk with Beauties." Salminen loves the milky liquor so much that she opened her own makgeolli pub called Taru Jumak near Hongik University in October last year.
"When I came to Korea as an exchange student at Seoul National University 13 years ago, I lived in front of Korea University, a neighborhood famous for makgeolli. At the time, it was difficult to communicate in English so I had no choice but to learn Korean quickly," she recalls. "I ended up making a lot of Korean friends, and naturally went to many makgeolli pubs in the area. I got to love it even more when I found out that it's healthy as well."
Opening her own makgeolli pub was something she had planned on doing for a long time. She went to schools teaching the history of makgeolli and recipes for making it, and toured around famous breweries for tastings. Then she opened Taru Jumak In collaboration with a veteran chef specializing in Japanese cuisine.
The pub serves varieties of makgeolli that are difficult to find in Seoul and which Salminen discovered in the Gyeongsang and Jeolla provinces. Another eye-catching item on the menu is "Taru bomb shot," a mixture of soju matured with coffee beans and beer.
"Many people say our menu is unique. I wanted to break the stereotype that limits the range of food that can accompany makgeolli. In fact, makgeolli goes well with anything. So I try to add variations to the menu with fresh seasonal ingredients. But I wonder if the menu doesn't suit the taste of young people, because most of our customers are in their 30s to 50s," she says.
Salminen adds she hopes to make her pub a place where traditional liquors of Korea, Japan and Finland meet. In addition to makgeolli, she serves sake and vodka, and the shop is eclectically decorated with Japanese ornaments and Finnish white birch.
Salminen majored in East Asian Studies at University of Helsinki, and says she was the only student at the time who was interested in Korea. There was also only one professor in the faculty who specialized in Korean studies. In fact, she chose Korean because she wanted to do "something that nobody else did."
She fell in love with Korea during her first visit to the country in 1998, and visited frequently since then, settling in Seoul five years ago when she found a job. She became popular on "Global Talk Show: Talk with Beauties" because of her fluent Korean and appetite for Korean cuisine.
"Now, I sometimes feel that I'm no longer a foreigner here," she says. "After work I go straight to my pub and work until midnight. Despite the busy schedule, I'm enjoying it because I'm doing something I love."
She hopes to open another Taru Jumak in Finland. "Korean restaurants are an extreme rarity in Finland, and I think it would be fun to open something like this there. It could contribute to cultural exchange between Korea and Finland, don't you think? Until now, my work involved promoting Finland in Korea, but I hope I can do the same for Korea in Finland in the future."