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Bean Story & How the Onggi & Korean Ceramics Became Art

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One of the important ways soybeans are transformed is by using a special pot called onggi. These clay, slab pottery pots come in various sizes and hold from 500㎖ to 100ℓ. They are perfect for fermenting food for they are waterproof yet porous enough for air due to the high proportion of sand in the clay.  Onggi are one of the most important elements in making soy sauce and bean paste―two very important fermented sauces, or jang, in Korea. In order to make these sauces, soybeans are first steamed and formed into large blocks that are as big as a child’s torso. They are wrapped in rice straw, which is rich in healthy bacteria, and then hung in a warm, humid place or exposed to the sun so they can ferment like cheese. After a few weeks of fermentation, the blocks (called meju) become the starting ingredient for many essential Korean sauces.
The fermented blocks can first be put into large onggi pots filled with salted water and charcoal for filtering to make soy sauce. These pots are left in the sun and air―two important elements to aide in proper fermentation. After the soy sauce has finished fermenting, the bean paste and soy sauce are separated. The soybean paste, called doenjang, is one of the most widely used sauces in Korea. It is the basis for many soups, stews, pickles, and side dishes. Two famous restaurants that specialize in using these sauces are Hongyongjae (+82-2-548-8340) and Sandang (+82-31-772-3989, www.sandang.co.kr). It is said that a doctor who was suffering from terminal cancer started Hongyongjae. After all western medical treatments failed, he started to use natural foods―especially fermented foods made from fermented soybeans―and he was miraculously cured. Chef Jiho Yim, who traveled all over the country to learn Korean food from home chefs and local restaurants, started Sandang. He incorporated all that he learned into making food that is artistic and healthy.

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Onggi as Art

 

The most famous area for onggi is Oegosan Onggi Village in Ulsan City where they have hundreds of artisans that make these pots. Many of the top sauce and kimchi makers get their pots made here. They say that the clay around the village helps produce the best onggi pots. While onggi’s purpose is mainly functional, there is a certain nostalgia and love for these large fermenting pots. Broken parts of the pots are used as serving dishes at some high-end restaurants and the pots are displayed outside homes as a memento of the past. Some artists have even gained overseas fame. Lee Kang-hyo of Cheongju City has developed an engraved celadon pottery with several different tones a departure from the typical brown onggi shades. His ceramic works have garnered much praise in Korea and overseas. He was recently the subject of a film produced by the UK-based Goldmark Gallery (www.goldmarkart.com), which also sells his works. 

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Modern Trend: Dining Ware as Art Over Function

 

Koreans typically buy their formal dinner plates and serving ware when they get married. In the past, the choice of plates was important for meals represented the togetherness and health of the family.
Also, the wife would live in the husband’s house and have to present meals to her husband’s family.
A typical Korean table setting consists of chopsticks and a long spoon, a bowl for rice, a bowl for soup, and several shared small plates, about four per person. Another occasion when Koreans will need special flatware is for the ancestor memorial services that are observed at least once a year. Typically, a different set would be ordered and these would be made of brassware. For formal dining ware, Koreans prefer to have porcelain or celadon. The ceramics tend to be a bit natural in texture and heavier in weight.
There used to be a trend for some time to buy overseas dining ware but the larger plates and bowls are not so useful for Korean food and they became more of a novelty in the house.
These days, new artisans are crafting Korean dining ware that is art over function but also combines Korean traditional pottery with modern techniques.
Artisans such as Lee Eun-hee are taking lacquer and applying it to modern plates and coffee cups. Lee Eun-beom makes modern serving ware and plates using celadon. He carefully shapes lotus petals and leaves on the plates instead of simply etching them. Lee Seon-hyeong and Gu Ja-ryeong take the heavier, slab pottery style and create elegant pitchers and plate ware with their subtle digressions of dark shades. These new artisans are making the Korean dining table acceptable for all by bridging the gap between young and old.

The new developments in Korean ceramics and pottery are the perfect complement to the popularity of Korean food around the world. They are a unique combination of form, function, and art.

Park Sung Eun  parkse@agrinet.co.kr

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