On the Condiment Ledge

Condiment ledge
The condiment ledge. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Every self-respecting Korean cook has a condiment ledge. Any sunny place will do: in the garden, a parking lot or on your roof. On that ledge, you keep your onggi. These earthenware jars are made from clay fired at 1200 degrees, which allows the jar to breathe.

Onggi earthenware makes the best container for traditional Korean sauces that require fermenting, such as soy bean paste, hot pepper paste and soy sauce. 

In Kyu Kim, “Onggi, Breathing Potters of Korea” in ICH Courier Online, vol. 21

Fermentation is key to Korean cooking. These past 3 weeks, I’ve dived headlong into the metaphorical onggi of Korean food. My taste buds will never be the same. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Cutlery

The first thing you’ll notice when you walk into a Korean restaurant is that the chopsticks are made of metal. So, too, are the bowls and cups. Why is that?

Many theories abound. One theory is that the 5th century Baekje kings believed that silver would change color if the food was poisoned. Commoners who could not afford to eat with silver used brass or iron instead. 

Korean BBQ
Korean BBQ with banchan. Photo credit: Karen Kao

My husband’s favorite theory is also the most boring one. After the deforestation caused by WII and the Korean War, the government encouraged its citizens to use metal as an alternative. Later, when steelmaking was named a core Korean industry, it became patriotic to use metal chopsticks.

Another theory contends that metal is more hygienic and durable than wood or plastic. It is certainly true that metal conducts heat better. So, your bowl of kalguksu (knife-cut noodles) stays piping hot and the naengmyeon (buckwheat noodles) delivered with ice cubes of broth will remain cold.

You’ll find your Korean cutlery in a drawer built into your table or sitting on top in a wooden box. Eat rice with your spoon and use your chopsticks to sample the many small side dishes that come with every meal. Banchan can include vegetables, legumes, fish, and meat, each one daubed in a sauce straight from the condiment ledge.

Fermentation

I want to visit the local soy master in the Slow City of Changpyeong. But it’s late when we arrive and the soy master isn’t home. So our Korean host shares his knowledge. Do you see those squares hanging from the eaves of the soy master’s house? Those are fermented soy beans wrapped in a particular kind of straw whose fungus triggers the fermentation. And if you look at all those jars, you’ll find rocks on every lid to mark the number of years the sauce has fermented.

Condiment ledge of soy master
Soy master’s home. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Condiment miracles require patience, sun and time. Soy sauce needs up to a year (fresh) and up to three years (mature). In the meantime, your onggi need to be kept absolutely clean and set far enough apart to allow full circulation.

Mom would clean the surface of the glazed clay sauce-jars on the ledge in the back yard. Because the well was in the front yard, it was cumbersome to bring water to the back, but she washed each and every jar. She took off all the lids and wiped them clean, inside and out, until they shone.

Shin Kyung-sook, Please Look After Mom

Seasons

Preserved herbs
Preserved herbs at medicinal_herb_36. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Tourists from across Korea come to Changpyeong to experience the simple life. And why wouldn’t they? Fresh air, organic ingredients, food the way granny use to make it.

In spring, you can take a class from Choe Geum-ok on how to forage for wild herbs. The rest of the year, you can eat the products of her own foraging. You can take as much as you like but you have to eat it all.

City slickers nostalgic for the good old days in the countryside need to visit the National Folk Museum in Seoul. The exhibits are gorgeous but also frank about the rigors of rural life. Each season brings its own chores from planting to harvesting to preserving food to survive the winter.

Back in the day, even the King of Korea had a dedicated courtyard for condiment jars in his palace at GYeongbukgong. If it was good enough for him, it’ll work for me. I have my eye on a recipe for gochujang, the ubiquitous red chili paste. I think my sunny balcony in Amsterdam will work just fine as a condiment ledge.

The royal condiment ledge. Photo credit: Karen Kao
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