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Taken by Korean Sweetness, Yeot and Sikhye

Taken by Korean Sweetness, Yeot and Sikhye

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What is the most preferred taste among the five - salty, spicy, sour, bitter, and sweet? Perhaps, it is the sweet taste. It is no exaggeration to say that the majority of people, including children and the elderly, like sweet dishes. This may be because sweetness stimulates our senses and evokes happiness.
Even in ancient times, when it was hard to find ingredients that gave food a refined sweet taste, Korean ancestors were able to make some sweet dishes such as Yeot (Korean hard toffee) and Sikhye (sweet rice drink).

The lunar New Year’s Day, Seollal, is a holiday Koreans never fail to observe. The first thing Korean housewives did to prepare for the holiday was make the sweet dishes. It required an arduous effort. First, they needed to prepare Yeot-gireum (malt) using barley sprouts because it is the main ingredient to make both yeot and sikhye.

Sikhye, Good for Digestion


They then poured water into the yeot-gireum and stirred it for a sufficient amount of time to obtain milky water with the enzymes of the melted barley sprouts. After mixing this liquid with cooked rice, they left it in a warm place for about ten hours. Through fermentation, the lumps of cooked rice are disintegrated into separate grains that start floating on the liquid. The liquid itself tastes sweetish due to the sugar that oozes out from the rice grains. To further increase the sugar content, Korean housewives then boiled the mixture at a high temperature for a long time. The final dish made through this process is sikhye.
Sikhye is a very simple, wholesome traditional beverage obtained from grains. When grains shoot out buds, an ample amount of enzymes can be obtained from them. Enzymes contain plenty of beneficial matters that help digestion. In the past, when food ingredients were not abundant, Koreans could have meat dishes only a few times a year, mostly on holidays. Since they stuffed their stomachs with the pricey food they could not get on ordinary days, they would have trouble digesting the greasy dishes. The solution was drinking sikhye, which is full of digestive enzymes. 

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Jocheong, a Folk Medicine


In the old days, when there was no sugar, the ingredients to supplement a sweet taste in lieu of today’s sugar were jocheong (grain syrup) and yeot. If sikhye is boiled down for a very long amount of time, it becomes a thick brown syrup called jocheong. It is neither completely solid nor liquid, but something in between. Jocheong has a refined sweet taste. Housewives used jocheong made only with rice to add a sweet taste to dishes or as a dipping sauce for rice cake. Jocheong was highly versatile. If made with sorghum or corn, it was used as a medicine to stop coughing and shake off a cold. The folk medicine was considered even more effective when a bellflower root or Danggui (Korean angelica root) was added. If the herbal ingredients were not available, they were replaced with radish or garlic. In short, jocheong was a handy household medicine kept at every home.

Yeot, Most Beloved Dessert


Yeot is definitely the sweetest of the traditional Korean dishes. It is made by boiling down jocheong for a long amount of time to increase the concentration. Next, it is left at room temperature until it becomes solid. Even a piece of yeot is enough to enjoy the full sweetness. This Korean toffee is particularly loved by children as a snack. But, since making it required so much effort, it could not be enjoyed at any time. Based on additional ingredients, yeot comes in various types - such as sorghum yeot, peanut yeot, and bean yeot. It was the most beloved dessert in Korea and a useful food ingredient for restoring energy.
You can observe the traditional process of making yeot at Changpyeong Village in South Jeolla Province (designated as a slow city). There, rice yeot is kneaded, stretched, and trimmed to take the shape of a stick. The traditional yeot has a balanced, soft sweetness, not an extreme sugariness.

Park Sung Eun  parkse@agrinet.co.kr

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