Korean Culture And Jae Sa Ceremony Cultural Studies Essay

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The Korean people have several traditions for their ceremonial culture. One of most prevalent traditions for the ceremony is "Jae-Sa." The Korean word "Jae-Sa" means the ceremonial process of offering food to the Koreans' loss, especially to their ancestors. This prepared food is, throughout the ceremony, always served for the Korean's ancestral rites or their loss. Normally, more than 4 different kinds of dishes are prepared; and, the selected ingredients of food are all highly nutritious because the Koreans believe that the soul of their beloved one would visit the ceremony and eat the prepared food. During the offered time when the soul eats the food, the Koreans in the ceremony turn around, not looking at the food, and this attitude is considered respectful. After the short period of the time - about three to five minutes -, those Koreans begin to eat the food. The taste of the dishes is delicious all the time, especially the last time I had a ceremony this winter. Beyond the taste that I appreciated, I also carefully observed the whole process of Jae-Sa in order to analyze how it was related to the study of material culture.

On December 18, 2010, I went back to Korea in 3 years and 6 months since I had left for my study abroad in the United States. The reason why I had to be in Korea during the winter break was that I must attend both my aunt's formal funeral and a ceremony for my family's loss. A day before Jae-Sa, my mother, her sister, and I went to a big market for shopping ingredients to cook. After we came back from shopping, my mother and her sister began to cooking. The first dish that they decided to make was kimchi, one of the most prevalent dishes in Korea. My mother first prepared all of ingredients to cook "tong-bae-choo kimchi," the cabbage kimchi. I had never known that a lot of ingredients are needed for the kimchi until I saw those that my mother and aunts prepared: 5 celery cabbage heads, 1 cut-into-thin-julienne Korean radish, a half bundle of Korean watercress, 5 cut-into-slivers chestnuts, a half bundle of green thread onions, 1 cup of rice flour paste, 100 grams of oysters, a half bundle of Indian mustard leaves, 5 peeled and crushed garlic bulbs, a half of Korean pear, 2 peeled and crushed ginger roots, 1 cup of brown sugar, 3 cups of coarse salt, 1 spoon of sesame seeds, 3 cups of table salt, some aromatic green vegetables, 15 dried red peppers, and finally 1 cup of pickled and boiled anchovies. My aunt salted the 5 celery cabbage heads, then removed the coarse outer leaves of the cabbages and kept them.

Meanwhile, my mother cut the cabbages into 4 sections lengthwise, using a kitchen knife. She was very carefully cutting them since the neat shape of the kimchi is considered respectful to the soul that would come to eat the food for Jae-Sa. Then my mother soaked all sections of the cabbages and the removed leaves into a basket filled up with 4 quarts of water and 3 cups of salt; and, she waited until they were softened, which would normally take 3 hours. After those cabbages became soft, my mother and aunts together rinsed them with cold water and drained it. While my mother was cutting the chestnuts into slivers, my aunts were also cutting the aromatic green vegetables into 4 centimeter lengths. My mother mixed 1 tablespoon of rice flour and 1 cup of water and cooked over low heat. Then she crushed the softened red peppers into fine pieces, added the rice paste and pickled fish juice to the red pepper powder, and mixed them well for around 3 minutes. My mother then mixed the stuffing ingredients: all the vegetables, the pear strips, the chestnuts, the red pepper mixture, and the sesame seeds. After she fully mixed them, she seasoned the mixture with the anchovy juice, the prepared salt, and the brown sugar, then tossed the mixture with the oysters. My mother and aunts did not use any tool when they tossed and mixed the ingredients; and, they showed me how adroit their hand skill was while they were mixing everything together.

Next, my mother packed the stuffing between the leaves of the softened cabbage by holding back the leaves and layering the stuffing under them. Then she firmly wrapped the stuffed cabbage with the outer leaves, and stacked them in a stone crock which inherited from my grandmother. My mother has always used that stone crock as tradition since her mother passed away. Both believe that any food that becomes fermented in the stone crock would have a delicate taste. In general, most Korean people stack and keep the stuffed cabbage in stone crocks. Before she got finished making the kimchi, she covered the top with the rest of the salted outer leaves, pressed down lightly, and finally closed the stone crock with a lid. My mother asked to move the stone crock to the end of a corner of a porch so that it could be fermented well in shadow without sunlight. After I came back from the porch, one of my aunts explained that those who live in the countryside dig a hole just below the ground, place a crock filled with a kimchi into the hole, and cover the hole with a wooden lid. When a kimchi is fermented and kept under the ground, its taste becomes the best and lasts for almost one year. Unfortunately, this traditional way of making a kimchi has been gradually diminished since the industrial revolution in Korea. About 70% of the population in the countryside has moved to several big cities since then. I conceive fermenting and keeping a kimchi on their porch as variation since those who have adapted to a modern lifestyle of a skyscraper cannot have their own yard due to the environmental limit. Even though I had to give up the fermented taste of the kimchi from the natural ground, I looked forward to appreciating the taste made in the stone crock, my grandmother's legacy, and I considered my mother's way of keeping and using the crock as tradition. Then I took a picture of the crock filled up with the kimchi in order to keep a combined look.

Fig. 1. The traditional Korean crock filled up with the tong-bae-choo kimchi

The next food which my mother decided to cook was "soe-go-gi-chap-chae," and it is noodles with beef and vegetables. There were also many ingredients prepared: 1 pound of tender beef, 9 tablespoons of soy sauce, 6 tablespoons of brown sugar, 3 tablespoons of green onions, 6 clove garlic, 3 black peppers, 3 tablespoon of sesame oil, 1 pound of Korean transparent noodles, 1 tablespoon of sesame salt, 1 carrot, 2 ounces of bellflower roots, 1 teaspoon of salt, 3 round onions, 15 dried brown and oak mushrooms, 2 bundles of watercress, 3 eggs, 3 stone mushrooms, and finally 3 pine nuts. As soon as those ingredients were set on the kitchen table, my mother began to cut the tender beef into thin strips then passed them to my aunt. She then let those sliced beef stand in a seasoning sauce made of brown sugar, chopped green onions, clove garlic, black peppers, and sesame oil. At the same time, the other aunt was cutting the carrot into thin strips and passed them to my mother, who was already heating a stir-fry pan. Once there was a slight smoke appeared from the heated pan filled up with a little vegetable oil, my mother immediately put the sliced carrots into the pan, and fried them for 3 minutes in weak fire. Still, those three experienced cooks were all in continuous and delicate motion: my mother adding salt and sesame oil in the pan then receiving sliced vegetable which would be lightly fried soon, my aunt halving the round onions and cutting them into thin strips with a kitchen knife then passing quickly all of them to my mother, and the other aunt scalding the bellflower roots in boiling water and carefully shredded them with her hands. I felt that they were cooking as if each of them were an orchestra member playing together harmonic music. Their motions and the various sounds from the knife cutting the vegetables, from the stir-fry pan frying them, from boiling water, and from water flowing from a tap, were harmonious enough for me to felt that way.

Afterward, my mother took the next step to cook the Korean transparent noodles, paying still attention to frying the shredded bellflower roots with chopped garlic and salt. While my aunt was cutting the watercress into 2 inch lengths and frying them with salt, my mother was cooking the Korean transparent noodles in boiling water until they became soft. Then my aunt rinsed the fully cooked noodles in cold water, cut them into around 8 inch lengths, and mixed those sliced noodles with the sesame oil. During the time when my aunt was cooking the noodles, the other aunt was frying the marinated beef with the dried mushrooms and was sprinkling them with brown sugar and soy sauce. After she fully cooked the marinated beef, the seasoned noodles were being stir-fried again on a very big round pan by her careful hand. While she was frying them, she tasted to see how the noodles were salted and seasoned, adding more brown sugar, soy sauce, and sesame salt. Since I felt that the pan seemed very big, I was wondering myself why she chose that big pan for only those noodles. However, her very next action answered to my inner question. She put all the prepared ingredients into the big pan then it suddenly looked very heavy. My mother helped her to hold the big, heavy pan then my aunt began combining those ingredients thoroughly and seasoning them with the sesame oil and black peppers. After my aunt cooked them for around 10 minutes, those mixtures became the looking-delicious soe-go-gi-chap-chae, and my mother put it into refrigerator for freshness. After we cleaned the kitchen, we waited for the tomorrow's Jae-Sa for my aunt.

The next day morning, my mother and aunts woke p at 7:00 a.m. Then they began Korean table settings for Jae-Sa. They first covered a big table with my mother's traditional Korean cotton tablecloth. The traditional tablecloth was made of 100% cotton by my grandmother. My mother said that my grandmother quilted every single patch all together with needle and string threads; and, she ornamented the tablecloth with sunflower-shaped gold patches. I was impressed by the combination of different colors because it seemed to me that each piece of patches represented the Korean flag; then I took a picture of the tablecloth.

Fig. 2. My mother's traditional Korean cotton tablecloth

This beautiful tablecloth could have been made a mere cotton tablecloth with simple one-color. However, my grandmother stitched different-colored patches with her adroit skill then it became one piece of art. I was not quite sure that I could consider this tablecloth as an example of assemblage, yet my concern turned into an assurance when I saw the soe-go-gi-chap-chae which my mother and aunts made yesterday.

Fig. 3. Soe-go-gi-chap-chae

My aunt placed several side-dishes, the kimchi, and the soe-go-gi-chap-chae on the beautiful tablecloth. The dishes and tablecloth all together seemed a perfect example of assemblage as the definition reminded me: "The process of putting together things to make a meaningful and beautiful composition of the separate parts." With the contents which I learned through the Folklore lectures, I was able to perceive those combinations as artistic and meaningful materials, not as mere food on the table.

In the meantime, my mother and aunts were busy setting and placing other things for Jae-Sa. My mother set 7 bowls of rice for each of family members who came for Jae-Sa and put other dishes in the middle of the table for all to reach. The reason why each person did not have his or her own dish for other dishes was because the Koreans had the tradition of sharing. Since Korea had frequent periods of time when the Koreans were relentlessly invaded by other countries such as North Korea and Japan, the evacuation had them miserable due to starvation, famine, and poverty. While numerous Korean victims were dead from famine, some were able to withstood hunger by sharing a small amount of food with other victims during the war and colonial periods. Not surprisingly, there was always an extreme scarcity of tools such as bowls, dishes, and plates. For that reason, it was often seen that more than a couple of the Koreans were eating food in one bowl or plate. Since the Independence Day of South Korea on August 15, 1945, the Koreans have been keeping the way of sharing food for the purpose of tradition. Thus, when I saw the dishes placed in the middle of the table, I recognized that the Korean culture of sharing food was derived from privation of the Koreans' colonial life. Moreover, it was surprising that I found that how the individual objects were displayed was deeply related to the Korean's grief history.

After a ceremony of Jae-Sa finished, we 7 family members began to eat the food. Each person picked up a silver spoon or a pair of silver chopsticks which my mother set up only for occasions. The kimchi, the soe-go-gi-chap-chae, and other side dishes were picked by the chopsticks, while the spoons were used for rice. However, I sometimes saw that some of the family members were using their chopsticks for rice, and that some were using their spoons to eat the kimchi and other dishes. In the past, the Koreans used spoons to only eat rice and soup and used chopsticks to only eat main and side dishes; and, this method was strongly considered as the Korean's dining etiquette. In the modern society of Korea, especially in each region of Seoul, this etiquette has been gradually diminished. I remembered that I went to a Korean restaurant with my family about 15 years ago, and saw one senior citizen scolding at a young adolescent man using chopsticks to eat rice. The young man said, "I am sorry, grandfather. But I am not really interested in keeping this etiquette as tradition." The food etiquette - that is, a way of using chopsticks and spoons - has changed, and I see this process of eating as variation.

In addition, I found another variation from the Jae-Sa table. The tong-bae-choo kimchi, which my mother and aunts made and served, was made in a traditional way that has been kept. A small change I noticed was that the kimchi was cut into smaller pieces than it should be. When one plate of kimchi is served, the kimchi does get cut so that the shape of the kimchi is not scattered and messy. In a traditional way of making kimchi, there are only a few times of cutting cabbages. However, right before the kimchi was served to the table, my mother cut the kimchi into small pieces for her preference. She did not like to tear up the kimchi by using chopsticks. With her personal preference, food consumption of the 6 family members could even be affected; therefore, some of them would prefer cutting kimchi into small pieces before being served. From my perspective, I concluded that one of reasons why variation occurred to people was that variation came from one's creative attempt.

In conclusion, each dish, especially the kimchi, showed the Korean identity. Tong-bae-choo kimchi was first invented in the region of Jeon-ra-nam-do in Korea. However, the Koreans in the region of Gyung-sang-nam-do do not prefer to eat tong-bae-choo kimchi since there is a serious and intense political conflict between two regions. The Koreans in Seoul have tendency to eat all different kinds of kimchi from every region. Interestingly, I noticed that one of my family members in Jae-Sa hesitated to eat tong-bae-choo kimchi because his hometown was Gyung-sang-nam-do. He demonstrated how the food identity affected his decision for what to eat. Yet, he truly enjoyed my mother's soe-go-gi-chap-chae since its origin came from Goryeo, where three different kingdoms united together. Thus, soe-go-gi-chap-chae was a traditional dish that can be served to all of my family members. In addition, throughout exhibition of the Korean dishes, there were two different folk groups that could bind us 7 people together that day. We were the Koreans from different regions, and were the family members who gathered for Jae-Sa in order to express our condolence. I, personally, love to eat soe-go-gi-chap-chae and Tong-bae-choo kimchi since they are always available for 4 seasons and easy to find in most deli stores in South Korea.

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