Koreans are, whether good or bad, among the heaviest drinkers in the world and food is invariably on the table with bottles and cans of liquor. Makgeolli, a milky rice wine, demands an order of mung bean pancakes. Soju, the clear, distilled liquor, is best with grilled pork belly. For fried chicken, anything other than beer is practically unthinkable. Indeed, chimaek, an English-Korean compound of chicken and maekju, is ingrained in the everyday lexicon.
The history of chimaek is relatively short. In the post-Korean War years, even a fried egg was a rare sight, let alone fried chicken. Then, in 1960, an incipient version of chimaek appeared at Nutrition Center, a restaurant in Myeong-dong, downtown Seoul. It served rotisserie chicken and draft beer. Around that time, U.S. chicken breeds and feed began to be imported, and a few years later, poultry farms with chickens crammed in cages emerged. Meanwhile, shortening, cooking oil and flour became mass produced.
With all the ingredients reaching critical mass, Lim’s Chicken, the first Korean fried chicken chain, opened in 1977 in Shinsegae Department Store’s basement, a hub of prepared foods in downtown Seoul. Seven years later, Korea’s first Kentucky Fried Chicken store opened in the neighboring Jongno District.
Today’s familiar chimaek pairing surfaced in 2002, when Korea co-hosted the World Cup finals with Japan. The underdog Korean team made a surprising run to reach the semifinals, sending the whole country into a frenzy. Exhilarated fans gathered in front of screens in plazas, restaurants, pubs and bars and ordered chimaek as they watched the matches. Propelled by Korean TV series exalting it, chimaek also spread to other Asian countries.
There is also a dark side, though. The boiling cooking oil, high-calorie batter and lofty sodium level of Korean-style chicken plus the beer whet the appetite and thirst, leading to overeating and overdrinking. Thus, besides joyous memories, Koreans’ beloved go-to favorite for social gatherings is associated with obesity, gout, heart disease and liver disease. Nevertheless, all over the country, a quick phone call can summon the popular pairing to the door within half an hour at a relatively affordable price, opening up “chimaek heaven.”