Given the powerful presence of rice in Korean cuisine, it should come as no surprise that several traditional products are based on this foodstuff, such as drinks for example.
Sikhye is a slightly fermented rice drink that is served and drunk cold, so better adapted to summer months. Its origins are not entirely known, but it is identified as a product from the southern part of the country, where local populations usually add vegetable bits such as roots or wild plants to the beverage.
One of the first steps in making sikhye is cooking the rice, and while it cooks, rice malt is dissolved, adding water a little at a time, then leaving the container out in the open. When the rice is cooked, it is strained and rinsed of its impurities; the rice is added to the malt, returned to the heat again and stirred to blend the two parts well. Yeast is added, and this starts fermentation that lasts for up to 6 hours. After fermentation, the rice starts to rise to the surface and the heat is turned up for a few minutes. Lastly the drink is cooled so it can be served.
In the Jeollabuk province, especially among the elderly, a wild plant called usul (Achyranthes bidentata) or dodukpul, meaning “thieves’ grass”, is added. This plant is known for medicinal uses, but because it is bitter, it is sweetened with the sikhye and drunk to alleviate bone pains. Sikhye is sweet and slightly alcoholic, given that is was fermented a bit. This version is named “usulsikhye”.
All beverage types have an important role in Korean cuisine: in popular culture it is said that no meal can be considered over without a final sip of a drink, whether hot or cold.
Traditional sikhye is still made at home, especially for convivial occasions such as ceremonial meals. In the past few years, a canned version of this drink has been seen, but it is an industrial-level production, putting traditional gastronomic know-how at risk.