Behind Korea's Obsession with Fried Chicken and Beer

The fried-chicken-and-beer combo known as chi-maek is cheap and beloved by Koreans, yet running chicken "hofs" remains competitive and largely unprofitable.

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Jan 30 2018, 3:00pm

Koreans are the undisputed Asian masters of chicken. Whether it's braised in soy, pan-fried in hot pepper sauce, dunked in soup, or deep-fried in oil, Koreans know their shit when it comes to chicken. And nowhere is this more the case than in good old-fashioned fried chicken.

"Everyone—young, old, children—everyone loves chicken," says Song Gyung-shim, owner of Man-Man Han Chicken and Beer. "That's why it's so popular."

Man-Man Han Chicken and Beer is one of tens of thousands of Korean chicken "hofs"—pubs—that specialize in fried chicken and draft beer. The combination of beer and chicken is cheekily called "chi-maek," a combination of the English word "chicken" and "maekju," the Korean word for beer.

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The owner of Korean Barbecue fries up a bird. All photos by Jo Turner.
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It's a combination beloved by office workers, families, blue-collar laborers—indeed, the lot of Korean society, who cram into booths to enjoy platefuls of double-fried chicken, thin local lager served in globular three-liter jugs, and , cubed pickled radish.

"Since pretty far back, [chicken and beer] just came up as being together," says Song. "It just naturally happened."

According to statistics quoted in the Korea Times, Koreans will eat 12 chickens per year each, representing 600 million dead birds across the country. The chicken hof market represents about $4.4 billion a year in revenue, and there were over 280 different franchises operating—not including individual restaurants, which are the majority of the chicken hofs.

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A whole bird, cut up, fried, and served at Fusion Sul-Sang.
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Korean fried chicken is lighter than American fried chicken, but in no way does it get the low points on Weight Watchers. Koreans differentiate their fried chicken from the American variety, familiar through American chains like KFC or Popeye's, mostly by American chicken's thicker, crispier coating. Korean fried chicken tends to be more papery and less knobby and crumbly.

Korean chickens also tend to be smaller than their pumped-up American cousins, and the meal is usually ordered by the bird. One whole chicken, chopped up and fried, costs anywhere from $10 to $15. It's usually dipped in salt, or brushed with hot and sweet sauce. For those who don't feel like walking to the nearest chicken hof, suicidal motor scooter drivers will have it to your door within 15 minutes of ordering.

The Korean mania for chi-maek has spread with the Asian mania for Korean TV. China in particular has gone completely ape for a Korean soap opera called My Love from the Star, about a handsome alien who falls in love with a beautiful Korean woman, whose favorite food is chi-maek. The show has been downloaded over two billion times in China alone.

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American Adam Rosenthal (left) and Englishman Richard Iles (right) enjoy glasses of Cass with their chicken. The chi-maek combination is beloved by foreigners as well.

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Cho Song-un used to be a scuba instructor, but has run Five Minute Chicken in Seoul for the past four years.

As a result, Chinese have been coming over to Korea in droves to eat chicken and guzzle beer. In March this year, Chinese cosmetics firm Aolan International Beauty Group flew more than 4,500 employees on a company vacation to Inchon, west of Seoul, where they sat around 750 tables to enjoy Korean fried chicken and beer. Throughout China, "KFC"—Korean Fried Chicken—has become all the rage, with restaurants opening all over the country, as well as in Singapore and even New York.

"I don't watch TV, but I know all about Korean chicken and beer," says Chinese hostel manager Zhuo Li Hang in Harbin. "I knew about the chicken and beer even before I knew the [TV show]."

Unfortunately, the glamorous lives of the luxury-condo-living woman and her alien lover are far removed from the gritty reality of running a chicken hof. Chicken hofs sprout up everywhere like mushrooms, but die just as fast, due to cutthroat competition. Many of the restaurants are opened by men or women who once had lucrative jobs with big companies like Samsung or Hyundai, but were pushed out in middle age, with just enough severance to open a business.

"A lot of people think it requires no special skills to run a chicken hof, so that's why a lot of them disappear within a day," says the owner of Korean Barbecue, who wished to remain anonymous. "It's much harder than I thought it would be."

In an essay on "Hell Joseon"—essentially "Hell Korea," about a 21st-century economy stuck in a 19th-century society—dissident intellectual Koo Se-woong describes running a chicken hof as "the ultimate destiny" for South Korean commoners. He says it is considered "the least prestigious and profitable form of business," but people do it anyway, "whether because there is no other job or [because] one has been forcibly retired in [their] 40s."

The Korea Times predicts the number of chicken hofs will continue to grow as unemployment remains stubbornly high. But obviously some people are making money.

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Sookju chicken at Fusion Sul-Sang.

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Cho Song-un and his chicken hof, Five Minute Chicken.

"Chicken hofs don't require complicated skill sets and people don't want to travel to have chicken, so having chicken restaurants near each residential area is viable," says Chung Chan-Rye, owner of Fusion Sul-Sang restaurant in Ilsan, just north of Seoul.

Chung says he and his family have succeeded because they don't just do the same thing every other chicken hof does. Yes, it's fried chicken and draft beer, but they try to make themselves different, something sorely lacking in what's often described as Korea's "culture of copying."

"We innovate, creating different dishes and keeping our menu fresh," Chung says. "We also use premium, clean oil, and our sauces are the best. Most hofs offer only mou, but we also serve our own homemade kimchi, which our customers love." And if anything will get a Korean back to your restaurant, it's a delicious homemade kimchi.

Meanwhile, online industry magazine "The Poultry Site" expects chicken sales to continue to rise in South Korea, especially with the Rio Olympics coming up this summer. "Korean consumers tend to eat more fried chicken during international sporting events," the magazine notes.

Keum Jeong-ja is a feisty proprietress of a nameless chicken hof in a rundown neighborhood in eastern Seoul. She says she's in a bad neighborhood for selling chicken, but that hasn't stopped her from succeeding over the past 15 years.

"This is not much of a business district, and not a good neighborhood," she says. "But I serve with love, passion, and cleanliness. And that's why I'm successful!"


This story originally appeared on MUNCHIES on April 26, 2016.