Breathing Earthenware Rich in Korean Tradition and Flavor
Onggi, Korean earthenware, has been widely used since ancient times. It is not clear exactly when it was introduced, but it is safe to surmise that it was used before the year 357, in the time of the Goguryeo Kingdom (37 BCE–668 CE), as depictions appear on the frescos on the inner walls of tombs built that year. Molded from clay, onggi is glazed and then fired, and unlike the Goryeo Celadon or white porcelain of Joseon, which only the nobles and the rich could possess, onggi was used daily in ordinary homes for diverse purposes, sometimes made into lamps for dark rooms but mostly as containers to hold everything from rice, kimchi, fermented soy sauce, and jeotgal (salted pollack roe, squid, and oysters) to brushes for writing and painting.
Lumps of clay may look coarse, but the earth provides onggi wonderful functions that exhibit the wisdom of Korean ancestors. The clay for onggi, called dogito, is rough, and when the earthenware is fired, very tiny holes are produced on its surface, which cannot be seen by naked eyes. Through this porous material, air can go in and out of the pots, allowing the food inside to ferment to optimum levels. Thanks to these pots, traditional food and basic ingredients of Korean dishes—kimchi, jeotkal (soy sauce), jeotkal (bean paste), and jeotkal (salted fish)—can be matured to their best condition. Onggi are also effective for long-term storage of seeds, rice and other grains, cloth, books, and herbs. As it is fired, the earthenware is covered with soot rising from the burning wood, and the black powder works as a natural preservative.
Onggi’s merit goes beyond its time of use, as it does not contaminate nature even when it is discarded. The clay comes from hills and mountains, and the glaze used on the pottery is made from ash and the mold from rotten leaves. When onggi is cracked or broken, it may be left in mounds in fields or on hills so that it can return to nature gradually, without polluting the environment. From start to finish, onggi causes no harm to the earth and is said to be the most nature-friendly means of storage and cookery.
In Tune with the Times
Nowadays, onggi are made in new designs that meet contemporary needs, ranging from cups, pitchers, dishes, and pots to containers suitable for use in refrigerators and flower vases. Demand may not be as strong as that for stainless steel products or plastic goods, but earthenware items of various shapes and designs continuously appear on the market in answer to the changing needs and environment of the present times. Amid the recent trend of putting top priority on promoting health, onggi are revalued for their scientifically recognized breathable and preservation characteristics. They are not just relics of the past, but they symbolize something that can rehabilitate nature and the health of modern people.
Onggi may look crude and homely compared to celadon and porcelain, but they have enriched Korean culinary culture over a long period of time. How about adorning your dinner table with a breathing piece of onggi, rich in tradition and flavor?
Written by Park Shinwon