“Ramen Again?” : The Meaning of Ramen in Korean Culture (Yujin Choi)

Introduction – The Start

 

The instant ramen noodles that we know today was first invented by Japanese. inventor Momofuku Ando. In 1958, he dehydrated seasoned noodles in oil heat to create the texture of the instant noodles, which allowed the noodles to be reheated in hot water in a matter of minutes, quickening the process of noodle making and eating. This revolutionary way of consumption set ramen apart from any traditional noodles, and rapidly spread throughout Asia, Europe and other parts of the world. It was introduced in Korea as well after the Koran War.

The 1960’s after the war was rough to all the citizens of Korea. Industrialization had not taken place yet and many were in poverty, barely being able to scrap anything to eat today. According to my mother Sang Eun Cha, who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, ramen had a place in society for the impoverished people. Rice instead was a symbol prosperity and those who could afford to eat it every meal was considered privileged. When people said they ate ramen today, it would even evoke sympathy to others.

However, as the years passed and many in Korea were able to enter the middle class, ramen slowly molded into a different meaning. My mother was especially surprised by how drastically the meaning of ramen changed from a symbol of poverty to a symbol of Korea. In this essay, we will delve into how much ramen today has become integrated as a common dish in Korea and how much of its DNA has manifested in the Korean culture. 

 

Ramen DNA Manifested in Korean Culture

 

The DNA of ramen is expressed in countless cultural aspects of Korea. First, the meaning of consuming ramen for college students can be a metaphor of laziness and loneliness. Because cooking ramen takes about 8 minutes max, students resort to eating it in order to save time and effort. The less complicated cooking and cleaning methods appeal to these young adults with barely any time to spare. There is a bit of prejudice when one says they ate ramen for lunch. Friends may reply something similar to these: “Wow, you’re such a lazy bum,” “Get off your butt and eat a real meal!” Not used to offend anybody, conversations such as these take place very often as ramen can be seen as almost the last resort to meals. However, because people eat ramen regularly, this attitude does not particularly antagonize or target individuals who eat ramen.

This meaning can be found reflected in pop culture. In 2013, the song “Ramen Again?” by Akdong Musician hit the top charts in Korea because of its relatable lyrics. The song talks about a dry, slow-going day someone is having. With a lack of desire to do anything, they simply contemplate about what their next steps should be. When the motivation to do something is just about to materialize, they end up eating ramen instead and resort back to their lazy life. Many students have resonated with this daily routine, as ramen stands as a symbol of laziness and indifference to life. This shows how much ramen is related to the culture of Koreans and how it can be used to relate and possibly even integrate all those who have been in the same situation.

Ramen can be also extremely helpful to the same audience above: as hangover stew. Many college students also eat ramen as a quick and easy method to get over that grudgy feeling in the morning after alcohol consumption. The alcohol culture is especially large in Korea for young adults; many college organizations hide behind the name of extravagant titles but instead are actually excuses for drinking. Research has reported that an average college student drinks at least one standard drink per day. To save them from the massive aftermath, people eat ramen. Although not scientifically proven, many have said that the spicy hot soup helps calm the stomach in the morning. They also state that the familiarity of ramen provides them with reassurance that they are eating something Korean. Very different from how ramen was viewed above, ramen as hangover soup is a all-cure remedy to many who are prone to excessive drinking in Korea. 

The concept of ramen is also used in a daily funny pick-up line. The phrase “Do you want to eat some ramen before you go?” metaphorically means the same as “Do you want to stay overnight and have sex?” It portrays ramen as a tool for seduction. After the phrase was used in the Korean Saturday Night Live back in 2013, it went viral among young adults, and now people use the phrase and ramen as a symbol of temptation. One of the reasons why it became so popular was because of its provocative statement. Although it might not mean much in the Western culture, in Korea, talking about sexual culture openly was considered taboo and not a norm in the deep-rooted conservative nature. The innuendo in this phrase used with ramen gave Koreans a nudge of familiarity and comfort that nullified that sexuality. I personally thought it was a good breaking out of the shushed sex culture and stepping into the freedom of expression, therefore progressing forward into the future. Funnily enough, ramen had a considerable part in this progression, and thus can be observed how much ramen has also helped shape culture.

Another identity of the ramen is its usage as an emergency ration food in Korea. Due to its long durability and quick cookable nature, ramen is easily delivered as a replacement energy source to affected disaster areas. Homeless shelters also ask for any leftover ramen as donations for food. In the Korean TV Show “Sports,” where celebrities hold various sports games, the producers asked each individual audience member to bring one pack of ramen as an entrance fee, of which they would donate to the nearest homeless shelter. This method was most likely not that difficult because most Koreans always have a stack of ramen in the house as emergency food. In the storage basement of my home, we have a whole cabinet filled with a variety of ramen. I remember as a kid, whenever our family ate some of the ramen on a weekend, the cabinet was quickly filled to its capacity. It never became empty. From this, it can be inferred that Koreans believe the ramen is a soul food that can energize them at the worst occasions.

Slightly different from all the meanings mentioned above, TV commercials for ramen are portrayed very peculiarly in Korea. In these ads, one can always observe a group of two or three smiling family members at a proper dining table, slurping ramen noodles from fresh white porcelain bowls alongside extravagant side dishes. The ramen can be observed as the main dinner dish. There is a sense of happiness and family that is evoked from consuming ramen in these short 30 second videos. While that may be true for Koreans, the choice of using ramen as a replacement for an actual meal is quite unique.  Despite the prevalence and popularity of ramen in Korea, it is still not considered to be a completely filling or nutritional dish, definitely not enough for a proper meal. Instead, it is more of a snack or a poor alternative to lunch or dinner, due to the purposeful fortification of unhealthy chemicals in instant ramen. People also tend to be less formal when eating ramen, such as eating straight out of the pot, crouched on the floor, or without anything else except kimchi. The clean white bowls and multiple sides observed in the commercials are contrary to real life, as Koreans like to save the delicate china and spend time making other foods for “real” meals. Nonetheless, these ads are enticing people to eat ramen as authentic meals. I personally thought this portrayal was very intriguing because whilst it may not be accurate, it is a metaphor of how ramen has manifested itself as a proper dish in Korea. People do treat ramen as a common source of food, despite its lack of nutrition, because it is cheap and easy to make. Surprisingly, these ads are what truly reflects how much of a large part of ramen occupies the Korean culture and how much it has manifested as a ‘proper’ dish. 

 

Development of Meaning of Ramen in the Recent Decade

 

Gradually, as the younger generation becomes appealed to the fitness lifestyles, people desire healthier alternatives to fast and junk food. In America, this manifestation can be observed in a lot of vegan foods, gluten-free bread or milk substitutes. Korea, instead of creating replacements for ramen, decided to change the ramen noodle itself to attract the same audience who are now willing to make healthier choices. While the reputation of ramen had been confined as an unhealthy meal in the past, the new nutritional ramen developed today has changed that notion. In an interview with personal trainer Mr. Sang Park, he said, “I have a lot of clients who are especially tempted by that one bowl of ramen at midnight. If they really can’t contain themselves, I tell them to eat gonyak ramen instead.” 

Used traditionally in Japanese cuisine and Chinese medicine, konjac, otherwise pronounced as gonyak in Korean, is a plant whose roots, called corm, are high in the dietary fiber glucomannan. Konjac can be incorporated into noodles after it has been ground down into a flour-like texture. The plant is pretty much a superfood: it is known to keep blood sugar and cholesterol levels low, improve skin and gut health, help heal wounds and promote weight loss. These health benefits show why konjac products have suddenly begun appearing in grocery stores and thriving in sales. It has especially become increasingly popular in Korea as the ultimate diet ingredient. Popular ramen companies such as Pulmuone and Nongshim have used konjac in a new series of instant noodles. It is quick to serve, requiring only a few minutes in hot water to be ready, just like real ramen. This type of ramen became famous quickly among dieters, as one could have the experience of tasting real ramen with better health benefits. 

This truly shows how Koreans’ love for ramen cannot be contained. No replacements can match the long-term embodiment of ramen in Korean culture. Like in the case of konjac ramen noodles, depending on the state what makes up ramen may shift depending on what the society favors currently; however, the core manifestation of ramen in Korea remains intact throughout all.

 

Meaning of Ramen Inside the Army Base

 

In South Korea, there is a military conscription for men, in which all males above 18 must serve in the army for the course of 18 to 24 months, depending on their base. Even inside these army boundaries, the ramen dish continues to prosper. Having had the chance to interview a real Korean soldier, I was able to discover what ramen means for almost 50% of Koreans in these special conditions. 

“Ramen is a delicacy to soldiers.” This is what KATUSA(Korean Augmentation to the United States Army) soldier Sungmin Choi replied when I asked what ramen means to him. Ramen is rationed out to soldiers as special treats after difficult trainings, and Sungmin said sharing these snacks with comrades who also endured the same hardships became the most memorable times and helped create special bonds. He also mentioned that the ramen is associated with “outside” food, and makes soldiers feel one step closer to home. During the Intensive Training sessions in KATUSA, trainees and soldiers are not allowed to contact people outside the base nor are they allowed to leave. For 8 weeks, they are confined to army foods that are mostly bland and simple. Thus, being able to taste the flavorful ramen brings nostalgia to these soldiers of the outside world. “We treasure it like no other. Not just the food. It’s a time where we can come together and just be boys again, talking about ramen and mindless things,” explained Sungmin. Ramen inside the army base truly means more than just another source of food. Associated with happiness and reminiscence, ramen for these Korean soldiers are manifested as a food for the soul. 

 

Conclusion

 

For each individual, there may be slightly different ideas in what ramen means to them. Ramen manifests countless identities to Koreans, from hangover soup, to diet products, to emergency rations. Ramen is so embodied in Korean culture that it cannot separated thus far. It definitely became a source of fuel one can’t live without, not just the food itself, but also the emotions and meanings it is evokes. Settled in as a common and popular dish in Korea, ramen has not lost its popularity within the many grandiose foods over the course of many years. Although at the beginning, it may have had a rocky start, it being a symbol of poverty, ramen now has a great deal to offer in Korean culture with many positive influences and manifestations that shapes the Korean individuals to who they are today.



Citations

 

Alper, Tim. “Instant Success: Why Koreans Are Crazy for Instant Noodles : Korea.net : The Official Website of the Republic of Korea.” Korea.net, Korea.net, 13 July 2016, www.korea.net/NewsFocus/Column/view?articleId=138467.

Akdong Musician. Ramen Again? SBS Kpop Star Season 2, 2013,

Burgess, Lana. “Konjac: 6 Potential Health Benefits.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 11 Nov. 2017, www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319979.php.

Cha, S. (2019, August 1st). Personal Interview

Choi, S. (2019, August 4th). Phone Interview

CoCo, Ad, director. 1986-2016 농심 신라면 辛ラ-メン 광고모음(Nongshim Shin Ramyun Ads Compilation). YouTube, YouTube, 20 Nov. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcHIKTcJwOI.

Edwards, Phil. “How Momofuku Ando Invented Instant Ramen – and Transformed Japanese Cuisine.” Vox, Vox, 29 Sept. 2016, www.vox.com/2015/3/5/8150929/momofuku-ando-ramen-instant-noodles.

“Korean Ramen Noodles – History & Facts of Ramyeon.” Bens Independent Grocer, 28 Apr. 2019, big.com.my/blog/korean-ramen-noodles-history-facts-of-ramyeon/.

Park, S. (2019, August 2nd). Phone Interview



A Noodle Narrative of Mr. Young Chu: Life Story Told Through Noodles (Yujin Choi)

For my final project, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Young Chu, the son of the restaurant founder and current restaurant owner of Tae Hwa Jang, located in the city of Daejeon in South Korea. Tae Hwa Jang is a Chinese restaurant and its main dishes are Jja-jiang mian, Jjamppong, and Tangsooyook, and a plethora of traditional Chinese dishes shown in the menu below. Mr. Chu, who came from a family from the Northern regions of China, sells familiar noodle dishes made of wheat, the main crop grown in that area. During the interview, Mr. Chu shared his views on his restaurant’s cultural DNA and how that DNA is expressed in the Chinese noodle dishes; he also did not hesitate to share his personal life story as a Chinese immigrant in Korea back in the 1950’s. I was grateful that he talked about his experiences, as I was able to gain valuable knowledge about the historical survival story of a Chinese restaurant in Korea, and how that influenced Mr. Chu’s life.

Pictures of Tae Hwa Jang Menu (All pictures are self-taken)

Life as a Hwa Gyo in Korea

Mr. Chu is a Hwa Gyo(華僑), meaning he is 100% Chinese who has permanently migrated overseas; in Mr. Chu’s case, Korea. Mr. Chu shared a fair bit about his life as a Hwa Gyo in Korea. He started off with the cultural clashes his family faced when starting a restaurant in a foreign country. Back in the 1950’s, Hwa Gyos couldn’t buy houses or land in Korea. When they went to a broker, they would have had to use a Korean’s name. Mr. Chu talked about how Koreans took advantage of Hwa Gyos easily, since many Hwa Gyos are very isolated and they didn’t have a firm foundational association that could help them. They were mocked often; Hwa gyos were called gullible and stupid, and people had an immense amount of prejudice against them. Although most of it is gone now, still, old people or hobos sometimes come to the restaurant and try to fight with the workers. Mr. Chu said that they tell him to go back to “our land”. “We just normally don’t reciprocate, we’re used to it,” he said with a smile. It only harms them if they go to the police or fight back.

It was very painful to hear this story from someone who must have gone through these horrible experiences for over 50 years. Mr. Chu’s attitude, however, was very understanding. This style of living, Mr. Chu added, was the biggest engine that powered and motivated many Hwa Gyos to succeed in Korea. 

How Noodles Influenced Mr. Chu Culturally

The backstory of Mr. Chu was very interesting and valuable because they are real life historical experiences. He elaborated on why the way Hwa Gyos lived in the past had an impact on how noodles influenced himself culturally.

He mentioned that in his life, although being very close in distance to noodle dishes and people who enjoy eating noodle dishes, noodles for him had a different meaning culturally. When the family first started the restaurant, it was very small, with the size of barely 50 cubic meters, and it was very poor. In a state of poverty, noodles were a form of sustenance for Mr. Chu’s family, but in a different way than consumption. It was a source of revenue. As Mr. Chu mentioned before, it was very difficult for the Hwa Gyos to succeed in Korea back in the days. In order to compensate, they worked very diligently night and day to earn money so that they could provide for their family.

During this point in the interview, I asked an additional spontaneous question about the meaning of noodles for Mr. Chu. Usually noodles means a source of joy or that family can get together happily in Chinese culture. I wondered if noodles had ever been as such for him. Mr. Chu answered that when his mindset and goal purpose changed from his youth to adulthood, so did the meaning of noodles. Once a special treat and a joyful meaning, noodles did not mean the same anymore. Now he says he is satisfied by providing that meaning to others because he couldn’t afford to have that experience himself in the past because he was busy working and selling noodles. Mr. Chu said another reason why Hwa Gyos were so motivated to work hard to even neglect the meaning of eating noodles was to go back home. Hwa Gyos believed that once they became prosperous enough in the foreign country, they would have enough money to go back to their homeland indefinitely.

Funnily enough, all that time spent working super hard to go back home rendered Mr. Chu to become very well accommodated to Korea, and now he feels that he can’t go back to his original roots because he is too different. He said that this strongest feeling came from the noodles themselves. The noodles that have been modified to Korean taste buds have become suited to him and he couldn’t eat the Chinese noodles because they are too savory for him.

How Changes in Chinese Society Reflect in Noodle Dishes & Mr. Chu’s Diet

The changing Chinese society, Mr. Chu says, has also influenced his diet and the noodle dishes that he sells. One of the biggest changes is definitely how China had become increasingly prosperous over the years.  Back when Mr. Chu’s father came to work in Korea, he did so to earn money and be successful, something he couldn’t imagine doing back where he was from. He took refuge not only from the invasions and colonization of other countries in China, but also China itself: its poverty and stilted business. Hence, Mr. Chu’s father had chosen to sell Jja-jang myun and other expensive Chinese noodle dishes in a big restaurant, in hopes of making lots of money. Although that notion was not the same in Korea, he nonetheless prospered in the growing Korean society by accommodating to it very closely. 

Mr. Chu also mentioned his former diet as a kid: potato starch. His family couldn’t afford rice or wheat; instead, they made porridge out of potato starch and ate it as a meal. If they had enough, Mr. Chu and his siblings would attempt to make noodles out of the starch in desire of eating the noodles they couldn’t afford in reality. He says that those days in poverty are probably over for many children in China, due to the continuous prosperity China has had throughout several decades. Noodles that are served in China have been upgraded with the extravagant side dishes that come with them. The society has moved away from eating noodles for sustenance and eating food for health and enjoyment of dining even for low socioeconomic individuals. Mr. Chu said that in his restaurant, there are many individual rooms in which many families reserve for private parties and celebration. Also, accompanied with the noodles are dishes such as shark-fin soup or fried-pork (tang soo yook), indicating a higher standard of living. Additionally, as we learned in class, in many Chinese restaurants can people observe the round tables suited for large families that can eat together while facing every member. 

Picture of Round table at Tae Hwa Jang, with side dish Tang Soo Yook

Korean Culture Manifested in Noodle’s DNA

There has been a fair mix of Chinese and Korean cultures in food since the days of countless wars and trades that started thousands of years ago. Through the exchange, culinary parallelism is very much evident in the two nations’ dishes. More recently, around the 1920’s and 50’s, there were a lot of Chinese people who immigrated to Korea like Mr. Chu. Historically, those were the times of the Japense colonization in Eastern Asia and the Korean war, respectively. Many took refuge more and more south, which inevitably introduced a colorful array of foods to Korea. One of the representatives is the Jja-jang mian. Mr. Chu explained that Jja-jang mian in China is yellow. The sauce is not liquidy or sweet and doesn’t use the blackbean sauce but rather a specific fried veggie sauce. After coming to Korea, over the years the noodle dish has been modified to accommodate to the Korean taste buds. It is definitely less savory than the Northern style. It also has a lot more color, the blackness of the Chunjang (blackbean sauce), which is Korea-specific ingredient. More significantly, the cultural DNA of Jja-jang mian has been heavily influenced by the Korean culture. Korea is known for its phrase “Bbali bbali!” which is the same as “kuai dian!”, meaning “quickly quickly!” Koreans have the tendency to want things quickly, get things done quickly, and go places quickly. The dish Jja jiang mian has been molded into the same culture, and since then has been commercialized into a fast food. The development of delivery service is especially prevalent in Korea, and is what greatly materialized the “Bbali bbali” culture. Nowadays, Jja-jang mian is easily ordered over the phone and can be eaten at a piping hot temperature, all within thirty minutes. Most jja-jang myun restaurants can prepare their dishes in less than ten minutes. Thus, instead of being eaten at an elegant round table in at posh restaurant after a twenty minute wait, the dish has now become a convenient alternative that can be gulfed down in front of the TV. It has manifested itself as the go-to delivery food in Korea. Mr Chu mentioned that even Korean restaurants in China that serve jja jang mian offer delivery. The Korean culture has established itself in the noodles even overseas, in the heart of the origin. Jja-jang mian in Korea also has the reputation of its cheap, affordable price. Nonetheless, despite the quickness and the inexpensive price of Jja-jang mian, the noodles still taste very good and do more than justice to its fast delivery and cheapness; and many Koreans never say no to a nice bowl of Jja-jang myun on exhausted days. The traditional Chinese food has accommodated well and made its way to becoming a popular staple in Korea. 

Mr. Chu explained that this is very different from the Chinese culture of Jja jiang mian. He couldn’t recall very much, but he always had considered the noodles as a special treat that he only had a few times in his early life; he also remembered eating them at posher restaurants. He also had an opinion that jja-jang mian in China is definitely not as much of a staple food as it is here in Korea. As an owner of a Chinese restaurant in Korea, Mr. Chu has also accommodated his place to the Korean culture. Tae-Hwa Jang, in addition to its grand 2000 cubic meter restaurant full of round tables and individual rooms, also has a delivery service ready for any quick local calls. Mr. Chu explained that in the very beginning when his father founded the restaurant, the delivery service was very poor. He hadn’t known much about it; he was focused more on incorporating the Chinese culture and tastes into the restaurant. However, soon that business grew with the changing Korean society. One can say that the restaurant, founded by Mr. Chu’s father who has experienced first-hand both the noodles of China and Korea, is living history of the noodle exchange that incorporates both the Korean and Chinese cultural DNA. 

Picture of Jja jang myun sold in Tae Hwa Jang

The restaurant Tae Hwa Jang together express a very interesting identity for Mr. Chu that arises from his multicultural upbringing in a foriegn country that became home for him. Noodles were a sustenance for Mr. Chu in various ways and its ever-evolving and accommodating nature shaped and molded Mr. Chu to who he is today. 

Interview Video Link:

Interview Questions:

  1. What is your name and how would you identify yourself ethnically?
  2. Where is your hometown? How long have you lived in Korea?
  3. What made you start a Chinese restaurant in Korea?
  4. How was it like when you first started the restaurant in Korea? Was there any cultural clashing? 
  5. What kind of noodle dishes do you serve in your restaurant? 
  6. Do you normally make your own dishes(Chinese or Korean) when you eat at home?
  7. What is the biggest difference between noodles you had as a child and the noodles you are selling in your restaurant?
  8. What aspects of Chinese culture can you see from your noodles?
  9. What do you think is the traditional Chinese noodle and what is the cultural significance of noodles in China? 
  10. How have changes in the Chinese society over the years reflected in your noodle dishes?
  11. How has Korean culture manifested itself in your noodle’s cultural DNA?
  12. Do you think you can say your noodles are completely Chinese? Why or why not?
  13. Last Fun Question: What is your favorite Chinese dish?

Jae-sat Nal – Journal #4 Yujin Choi

Jae-sat Nal

Oh Soul, come here, do not go far away,

We are waiting for you, we have prepared for you.

All your household has come to do you honor, all kinds of good foods are ready:

Unpolished rice, barley, soybeans, mixed all with yellow millet,

Pungent, salty, sweet, hot and spicy: there are plates full of all flavors

On the five rows on the table.

The first,

Ribs of the fatted cow cooked tender and succulent,

And the leftovers make the savory stew, 

The color of the soup white as snow;

The second is decorated with

Savory and hearty blended in the soup of dduk;

Stewed chicken and oven-cooked mackerel, served up with soy sauce;

Marinated namul, the greens of the fields, on the large plates on the third row;

Fried jeon with tuberosum and kimchi, or sometimes with thin sliced meat;

Braised chicken, seasoned with ginseng and garlic, but not to spoil the

Taste;

On the last row,

Oozing out of the rice cakes, the hot mix of honey and sesame seeds;

Peeled and cut are the apples, pears, and persimmon;

Ice-cooled shik hye, strained of impurities except for the rice, cool and refreshing;

Two lit candles on either side of the table,

Here laid out is the gook-ja, and here is the mak-gullee!

Oh ancestors, come enjoy the feast!


I chose to imitate the poem called “The Summons of the Soul” by Qu Yuan. I chose this piece because as soon as I read the poem, it instantly reminded of the Korean memorial anniversary day called Jaesat-Nal. Jaesat-Nal is held in most Korean households (although the number has been decreasing throughout the years) as part of a respectful, cultural service for the ancestors in the family. One of the biggest and most prepared components of this day is the jae-sat sang, which means the table on which all the foods are during the Jaesat-Nal. There are countless varieties of food on this special table, prepared especially “for” the ancestors. The descriptive imagery in the poem of the foods made me reminisce the similar freshly made infinite dishes that I had on Jaesat-nal. Also, the fact that the poem was also “summoning” the souls also reminded me of a similar reason behind Jaesat-sang, which is basically preparing the foods so that the ancestors can eat in the after-life or on their journey to the after-life. I thought that imitating the piece “The Summons of the Soul” for Jaesat-nal would have been fun to do because there are many similarities in the two events, and it would be interesting to see the parallels between the two by creating another poem by imitating the original.

I researched about the original poem “The Summoning of the Soul” and read the actual full poem instead of just the portion we were provided. I also read through some of the background. The piece was penned during his exile transport when the writer Qu was banished from his country in the Qin dynasty due to his rivals plotting against him. What I could take away from the rest of the poem was how much Qu was lamenting at his state. In the piece, the writer describes specifically of his fearful exile journey and scary afterlife. However, at one place in the piece, a stroke of sunshine is shone as the writer talks about the food prepared for the souls. The descriptive listings show how much one would love eating it after a long hard journey, and the mood becomes almost celebratory. I’m really glad that I was able to read the full poem, because now I could see the big picture in how this short portion was a source of joy for the writer. I thought this accurately reflected the culture that the original author was trying to show, and also the culture that we learned in Chinese food culture during class. The food is a source of happiness and joy for people in times of hardship, and also where people can gather and enjoy each other. Food also becomes a language of love; the writer, going through a hard time, can feel the love from the people who had prepared the food, and able to embrace it to help fuel his not only physical self but also emotional and spiritual selves. 

I also learned about my own culture while writing my piece. I researched about Jaesat-nal and the specifics of the food laid on the table for the Jaesasang so that I could get a clear picture of how the table actually looks like. It helped me a lot with the imagery of the poem. I learned that there were four to five rows of food laid out on the table with distinct methods. The first usually consisted of the hot meaty stews, the second with chicken and fish, the third with the vegetable greens, and the last with sweet rice cake or fresh fruits for dessert. The preparation was a full course meal for the ancestors. Also, I learned that all the foods were mostly bite-sized or easy to eat, so that the ancestors would not have to do any work themselves. The way the food was laid out reminded me also of the full course meal in Italy, which we learned during class. Although two completely different countries, Korea and Italy, the way the food was prepared on Jaesat-nal was definitely similar to the traditional Italian meal structure, such as the antipasti, primi, secondi, insalata, and dolce.

There is definitely cultural DNA embedded both literature pieces, which is the remembering of the ancestors through food. There are several reasons for the summoning of the souls in both cultures. First, it becomes a place for the meeting of the ancestors. Back when this cultural act was ignited, there were no pictures or videos to look at to see dead grandparents or parents when one missed them. Through the summoning of the soul, the people alive on earth were able to “see” their ancestors as they invited the ghosts down on earth to have a meal. Also, the summoning act is also an act of love. Within families in many East Asian cultures, people have a difficult time verbally expressing love by saying “I love you,” and instead express love through other physical acts, the most common one being making food for them. Parents want to feed their children and loved ones as much good food as possible to make sure they are well; preparing enormous amounts of food is a representative act of love. Likewise, in Jaesat-nal and the original poem by Qu Yuan, the cultural DNA of preparing food to show and feel love is embedded in the pieces. In both poems, not once is the phrase “I love you” explicitly stated; rather, a plethora of home-cooked foods are carefully listed and described, as if each addition contributes to a greater magnitude of love. For the living family, this is their one and only way to show their ancestors how much they love them. Finally, the summoning of the soul is an act of respect for the ancestors. I kept the line “All your household has come to do you honor, all kinds of good foods are ready” that was in the original poem in my new poem as well, because I believed the line accurately described the honor and respect the living family desires to bring to their ancestors. Similarly to showing love, one can also show respect by preparing this food, because it is helping the souls in the journey across the afterlife by providing them with good food. For a more emotional description, I added the line “We are waiting for you, we have prepared for you” in my own poem, because I thought it showed a good imagery of how the living family is desperately yearning for their ancestors, and wanting for them to rest and have a meal in the midst of their long journey.

 


Works Cited

https://ko.wikipedia.org/wiki/%EC%A0%9C%EC%82%AC

https://placeboning.tistory.com/108

Summoning of the Soul of Qu Yuan

https://toscanaslc.com/blog/guide-to-the-traditional-italian-meal-structure/

Noodles: To Infinity and Beyond (#3 Yujin Choi)

Before the start of this class, a lot of my friends, including myself, almost scoffed at the idea that there was a course about noodles at Emory. Our small minds could only encompass “noodles” as “thin long strings of carbs, mostly used for pasta.” With just a week into class, my perspective of the noodle had changed, and it continues to evolve every moment spent thinking about its multifaceted identity. 

Part of what the noodle encompasses, is its ability to influence a whole society. As Dr. Li explained in a class lecture, one can tell a person’s characteristics based on where they are from. This comes from how the different ingredients of noodles are cared for in different regions, and how the methods shape the people who tend them. In Thomas Tallhelm’s “Rice Theory,” the people of the  southern and northern regions have very distinct personalities. The Southern people are generally more interdependent and cooperative. This is contributed to the fact the South grows rice as its main crop. Growing rice in the Southern mountains requires much more intensive labor than growing wheat. It needs a lot more cooperation between people, which is why Southerners are more of a people-person. The Northern region is different; it grows wheat as its main crop in the flat plains. Due to that fact, northern people are more independent, analytical, and sometimes even more aggressive. Growing wheat doesn’t require people to  collaborate or interact with others on the field in any way. One can just own a small piece of land and feed your own family. The noodles, in this way, very much reflect the culture, regions and the people that cook them. It’s almost like a cuisine footprint, in which it records the exact nature of the people that once created them.

During one of our breakout room discussions, I realized that noodles, although an extremely staple cuisine in both countries, has distinctly different meanings to the Chinese and the Italians.

The meaning of noodles is clearly evident in the portrayal of noodles in the story Crossing the Bridge. As we read in Durack’s “Noodle,” the boy who constantly gets distracted from his Imperial exams moves away across the bridge so he can focus on his studies and pass the exam.  With his hot bowl of noodles from his old nanny across the bridge, he is finally able to finish his studies after successfully taking the exam. This story highlights that the noodles were vital to his studies, a component that helped his pass the exam. It didn’t become a distraction nor a simple portion of fuel. Instead, the noodles provided the essential nourishment for the boy that prevented the bad spirits from bothering him and eventually helped him focus and study. As shown in this story, noodles in China are like a miracle cure food. It brought comfort and concentration to the boy, something he desperately needed. Noodles are able to bring forth the very essentials a person consuming them needs. Noodles also play a very integral role in China as one of China’s staple cuisines, of providing people’s needs through the warmth of the love by the others who have prepared the dish. The noodle has the power to bring people together in front of a table, and its ever-evolving nature continues to excite people who consume it. 

For Italians, noodles also mean more than just food. Pasta, the Italian equivalent of noodles, is an all-time comfort food. These comforting qualities may be from the fact that pasta is a staple Italian cuisine or that it’s catered to the tastebuds of Italians, but the most comforting quality of pasta is how little it has changed over the centuries. The pasta people eat today are very similar to what ancestors ate in the past; it, with its long and multicultural history, is a significant culinary connection to our past. It’s as if we are consuming the historical evidence left by our ancestors. As Dr. Ristaino explained in her lecture, people can be constantly connecting with family when they eat pasta. The food becomes not just fuel but a pillar for culture in Italy, that was once erected hundreds of years ago. And the way it still stands today plays a mother-like role in encompassing all the culture that happens surrounding Italian pasta. 

Noodles definitely go beyond the dictionary definitions in China and Italy. Even the most basic ones cannot even grasp the smallest portion of what noodles actually mean for the people in these countries. I think the biggest problem in the clinical definitions is that they become too technical. The clinical definition includes the ingredients and the shapes of a specific type of noodles; yet, “noodles” cannot be limited to one ingredient or one shape, even in the same town, let alone the same country. I personally think the definition should be embracing more of the culture-influencing aspects of the noodle. Here is my best attempt:

Noodles – “a substance of food produced with as much creativity as the history and the present allows, and encompasses culture and history in each different pattern and taste it is made to be”

Image (Able to explain why this picture was chosen in class discussion)

(https://chelseakrost.com/owning-a-home-requires-top-ramen-and-a-budget/)

 

The Two Kitchen Tables – Yujin Choi

The Two Kitchen Tables

I happened to be living in my grandmother’s house the week this journal was assigned so the timing was perfect to be conducting the study at her place. Because of my summer internship camp, I had to reside away from home for a week, and the closest place I could stay was my grandma’s. At first, I wasn’t confident if I could discover anything new or intriguing about the kitchen table at this place, because I thought it would be the same as eating in my own home. However, the first meal I had with grandma definitely caught my attention, when the only two people in the house, my grandmother and I, started eating in two distinct locations. 

My grandmother’s house is pretty big, big enough for a four-person family, but Nana is the only resident. Her former housemate, our beloved grandfather, passed away over 14 years ago. Back then, Nana refused to move out, so she’s been filling up that huge space all by herself. In the kitchen, the huge dining table that was my grandparents’ wedding present stands with confident reverence. That was where I thought we’d both be eating our meals. 

“Nana, why are you eating there?” I asked when I sat down naturally at the big dining table in the huge kitchen, where Nana had set up my plate for me, but wasn’t joined by my grandmother. Instead, she placed her meal on the elongated kitchen counter near the back veranda of the house. It was barely big enough for her two plates. I was confused why she was eating there. She had all this space, but she continued to say “It’s okay, love, eat at that table. I like watching you eat from here.” when I asked her to eat with me at the table. 

As the research began that week, I slowly began to recognize the existence and significance of the two dining tables. Throughout the 7 days, the anthropological method that I decided to use in my grandmother’s home was participant observation. This method allows people to be involved in a foreign culture through intense involvement over a certain period of time. I chose this method because it was easily done as I was able to immerse myself directly in not only my grandmother’s food but also the culture at the table by residing at my grandma’s place and having to eat dinner together every night. Also, by being at the dining table, I was able to carefully observe my grandmother at the kitchen counter with a third person’s perspective. I decided against an interview because I thought the participant observation gave a more objective view of the meaning behind both the kitchen counter and the dining table; a structured 1:1 interview could have provided my grandmother space to fib about the truth.

The kitchen counter, a.k.a., my grandmother’s dining table, was a metaphor of many. First, the counter served as the control center. The view from the counter to the main dining table was conspicuous. Her eyes, barely focusing on her own meal, darted in my direction every couple bites. If she felt that I was almost finished a side dish or a bowl of rice, she would quickly recharge my meal with the right components.

Something to realize about Korean meals is that it’s just never one dish. A meal normally consists of many small side dishes called “ban-chan” which are prepared extensively even for the smallest portions. These could consist of kimchi, black soy beans, salted spinach, sweetened anchovies, and more. They come with the main carb, a bowl of rice, as well as some other main stew or protein, usually soy bean paste stew or oven-cooked mackerel.

The kitchen counter also represented motherly sacrifice. As I said before, whenever I was eating at the big table, my grandmother was barely able to concentrate on her own dishes. Eager for my well being, she would be so quick on her feet to fill my plates that she barely had time to empty her own. Even for the sake of the research, I couldn’t bear to watch that, so I would always tell her “I’m fine, Nana, eat your own food.” But she would jokingly refuse and just ask if I needed more rice. The small kitchen counter also couldn’t fit the variety of banchan dishes I always had the privilege of having every dinner. The surface was perfect for just a bowl of rice, a cup of water, and a small plate for kimchi. She would again refuse any of my attempts at giving her my ban chan, saying that she could cook them anytime later.

The second table is the actual dining table that stretched across the whole dining room. The table, a wedding present for my grandparents, was the most prized possession of my grandmother and the last bit of my grandfather’s trace she wanted to leave in her house. The intense black paint over the wood had faded over the course of 50 years but not scratched in the tiniest bit. It was very well taken care of, as if someone had polished it down almost every week. During my stay at my grandmother’s house, the dining table was never to be touched before or after any meal. It was left void of any mess, and only when my meal was prepared and set at the table was it finally used. After my dinner, my grandmother would just whisk away my plate and tell me to go sit in the living room. I observed that she would quickly reset the table back to its original state, wiping off any trace of food that I must have slipped. The table was then left alone until the next day. Its sole purpose was to feed me. Not even the owner herself, but just me. The table, filled with unique and invaluable memories with my grandfather, was to be carefully maintained and not be worn out by multiple uses. Yet, she was willing to spend those remaining uses for her granddaughter.I I became quite emotional after thinking this through, because I realized that my grandmother was willing to utilize her most valuable item for me, even when she herself was too careful to.

Although both used as a tool for consuming food, the functions and the practices associated with these two tables were distinct. Each table has its own main character and serves different purposes. For my grandmother, the counter is not really a place for her to eat; it’s a place where she can nonstop sprout her love for me with her haste dining and constant questions. For me, the dining table was a place where I ate. It was a place where I could fill my hunger with the love of my grandmother’s food and the preciousness of the table’s value. 

This is not a cliche story about how the kitchen table was used as a gathering point, a communal space, or a communication hub for the family. My experience at my grandma’s was very different. It truly showed me what love and sacrifice on the kitchen table were in the most genuine and raw form, at times which could have been heartbreaking to finally observe. I could say, however, without a doubt that my grandmother filled my dinners with unconditional love, something I’ve always felt in any other family kitchen table that I’ve immersed myself in.

Class Material Reference

  •  Eating Culture – An Anthropological Guide to Food by Gillian Crowther

Yujin Choi Journal #1

CHN 370W

Dr. Hong Li

Dr. Christine Ristaino

Yujin Choi

Mandooguk

          The dish mandooguk has always held a special place in my heart. Mandoo, means dumpling in korean, and guk, means stew, which makes up mandoo-guk, a dumpling soup. Specifically, it is a Korean broth dish eaten during the celebration of Lunar New Year’s. In addition to the dumplings, the soup contains thinly sliced rice cakes called “tteok,” as well as marinated beef, cooked eggs, and pepper for seasoning.

Image of Manduguk (https://tarasmulticulturaltable.com/duk-mandu-guk-korean-rice-cake-and-dumpling-soup-and-lunar-new-year-round-up/)

To talk a bit about the historical and cultural background of mandooguk, the exact origin of eating mandooguk is unknown. The tteok-guk, however, can be found in the 19th century Korean customs book called Dogguksesigi. Tteok-guk is the same mandooguk dish, just without the dumplings. The customs book states that tteok-guk uses beef or pheasant as its main brother and pepper for seasoning. Culturally, tteok-guk and mandooguk are consumed on Seollal, the Korean Lunar New Year’s day, as a symbolic meal. The whiteness of the rice cake in the mandooguk symbolizes purity and cleanliness, a perfect representation of a fresh start in the New Year’s. The oval shape of the rice cake, represents ancient Korean coin currency, and symbolizes prosperity. It is a tradition that every individual who eats a bowl of tteok-guk gains a year of age. Children, hence, are usually eager to have extra servings, in hopes of becoming older quickly. I remember, however, as a kid I used to dislike eating the tteok, so my mom would always lightly threaten me that I will stay a kid forever while my brother grows until I ate my tteok.

In our family, we always make the mandoos, the dumplings, ourselves for the mandooguk. The night before Lunar New Year’s, our whole extended family of 20 would get together at my grandma’s house and sit around the dining table making dumplings with our bare hands. When my brother and I were just kids, we would compete with our cousins on who could make the biggest dumpling. After several attempts at wrapping the poor thin wrapper around fist-size insides and watching the insides peak out everywhere, we would get scolded by our oldest aunt Tae for wasting her time. We children would then scramble off and hide in our grandma’s bedroom till we slowly came out one by one and started helping the adults, this time for real. My grandmother would also always make her own special spicy sauce that was incorporated in the mandoo each year. I have searched my whole life trying to find a taste similar to it but was unsuccessful. The only time when I could taste such authentic seasoning was Lunar New Year’s at my grandma’s. Our own little traditions make this dish more special and significant in our family.

I love even just thinking about this dish because it always reminds me of home and family. Our special tradition of homemade dumplings and the memories that come with it are something I can never forget. Lunar New Year’s is the only time in the whole where all my extended family come together from faraway places and produce something in teamwork. Even as adults, my cousins and I still sit around the table cooking and laughing at the old times. The fact that this time only comes once a year makes every moment with my family memorable. This mandooguk, in my opinion, also symbolizes family. One would expect such a traditional New Year’s dish to be present in the New Year’s; however, the dish would not come forth without any effort. It takes us around three to four hours to make batches that could fill 20 people. Likewise, one would expect family to be present at a traditional gathering, but only if the family makes effort to come together. It always brightens my day to think that every single member of our family made effort to be together, travelling up to three to four hours to arrive at my grandma’s. I long for the New Year’s every year, not just for the food, but also for the family. Unfortunately, as I entered college, I am unable to make it to the Lunar Year’s gatherings at my grandma’s, because it usually falls on mid-February, when I am already back in town for the second semester. Around every Lunar New Year’s, I terribly miss eating the mandooguk and being with my family; they are always thoughtful enough to Face-Time me during the day and say hello. But I know it won’t be the same till I am back and actually there.

Image of Family

Mandoogook Recipe

(https://www.maangchi.com/recipe/mandu-guk)

Directions

  1. Bring 8 cups of water to a boil over medium-high heat.
  2. Add brisket and garlic to the boiling water. Cover and turn the heat down to medium.
  3. Boil for 30 minutes. Taste a piece of brisket to check if it’s tender or not. If it’s still a little tough, add more water and cook longer, until the beef turns tender.
  4. Add 14 dumplings and turn up the heat to medium-high. Cook until all the dumplings are floating to the surface and have turned translucent. If you use freshly made dumplings, it will take about 7 minutes, but if you use frozen dumplings straight out of the freezer, it will take longer, between 10 to 12 minutes.
  5. Add fish sauce and green onion, stir it gently and let it cook for 1 minute.
  6. Pour the beaten egg over top of the soup and let it cook for about 20 seconds. Stir it gently.
  7. Add sesame oil and ground black pepper.
  8. Remove from the heat and serve right away with kimchi and a few more side dishes.