▲ Sinchon Elementary School students help grow organic produce and learn where their food comes from. Photo courtesy Sinchon Elementary School
My belief that organic and environmentally-friendly goods are beneficial to both my health and the earth has driven me to purchase them online. As most of these goods come from the mainland, causing me to pay extra for shipping, I have come to realize that these transportation fees mean that I live on an island that is truly isolated from the mainland.
When my mainland friends visit Jeju, my mom worries about the variety of island food and makes excuses that there’s not enough with which to treat them. She recalls that those from Jeolla province, a place known for its complex and delicious foods, must laugh when they see how simple, plain, and convenient Jeju food is by comparison.
Some vegetarians criticize Jeju as a place where most restaurants deal exclusively with pork and fish for the main dish, with even some vegetarian-looking meals and side dishes likely to contain animal-derived seasoning. They say it is the worst place for them to get food.
Even foreigners complain that the variety of vegetables they are able to obtain here is very limited, and moreover, it is almost impossible to get raw vegetables in a Korean restaurant.
I have to remain silent when I am confronted with such criticisms, partly because I agree and partly due to my ignorance of traditional Jeju cuisine. However, it is not only my mom and I who underestimate the value of Jeju culture. A few days ago I took a cab to a restaurant famous for serving authentic Jeju cuisine. The cab driver denied any desire to visit the place, for the menu reminded him of his old hungry days, when the food served there was part of the limited choices that he had for each meal.
To my surprise, traditional Jeju food expert Yang Yong Jin insists that Jeju is the perfect place to be a vegetarian and that people traditionally used to receive most of their nutrition from raw vegetables. He added that this is like a “salad” in western cultures, which clearly distinguishes Jeju from the rest of Korea.
These two completely contrasting views on Jeju food culture are confusing. It is ironic that some people welcome the old Jeju food as the well-being food worthy of its high price while others are sick and tired of food from their poorer days.
I now know good places on Jeju from which one may obtain fresh produce but still feel at a loss when it comes to the right place for organic groceries. One of my friends likes to visit agricultural fields herself and buys on site, but how many can afford to do the same in our hectic lives?
▲ Students, parents, teachers and volunteers come together to learn about and grow organic vegetables at Sinchon Elementary School, east of Jeju City. Photo courtesy Sinchon Elementary School
Most people prefer the major supermarkets (like E-mart or Lottemart) for mundane grocery shopping and occasionally go to the traditional markets (like the Dongmun Market or the five-day market), where organic displays are quite limited. Whether food is organic or not is not a big concern for many Jeju islanders, and Yang explains that because people can easily get fresh produce any time, anywhere, it is this availability of fresh produce that makes people take the food for granted.
Jeju, with the ability to provide an abundance of fresh produce year round, actually keeps its citizens from becoming aware of the need to buy organic fresh produce.
According to Kang Joo Yeon, who runs an organic produce retail shop in Moogong-ine in Ido 2-dong, Jeju City, processed foods contribute more than 60 percent of sales. These include instant noodles, snacks, and seasonings with no or reduced additives. Fresh vegetables don’t account for the other forty percent either. She explains that most organic shops on Jeju are franchised, and as for her goods, even the fresh veggies from Jeju have been to the mainland and back.
So how might we proliferate local organic produce? Most people would agree that our main priority when shopping is price. Whether the food is from Jeju or not doesn't matter so much as long as it was produced in Korea.
Yang said that food produced in Jeju accounts for more than 50 percent of vegetable sales in the Garak Market, one of the largest traditional fresh produce markets in Seoul. Vegetables from Jeju are competitive in the sense that they ripen the earliest thanks to the mild climate here. However, the vegetables Jeju people encounter at nearby supermarkets are most likely grown elsewhere.
It is not hard to find mainland-produced groceries, even in a traditional market, so you should make sure to ask about each product whether it is from Jeju or not. It is ironic that Jeju residents have to rely on the mainland while Jeju produce is being exported to the mainland and overseas.
More and more people are becoming aware of the benefits of local organic produce, which is environmentally friendly and beneficial for our health. In fact, Jeju is not an exceptional place in its organic agricultural boom, and more conventional farming houses are expected to transition, partly because it is also market friendly, leaving much room for higher profits.
Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that the transition to organic farming is easy. According to Yang Yong Jin, the scale of most farming households is too small to secure the market alone. He added that it is hard to collect the statistics of organic farmers because they are usually small scale and scattered all over Jeju.
My conversation with him makes me feel less guilty about having most of my food delivered from the mainland through online shopping. It’s no wonder that some organic-produce consumers have difficulty finding local sources easily, leading them to rely on big supermarkets or Internet shopping.
At least until my grandmother’s generation, each household had Wooyoung, Jeju dialect for a small block of land near the home devoted to gardening. Households tended the field, from which they got fresh produce year round, themselves. Jeju natives have survived on the island’s barren soil with their hard work and have benefited from its mild climate at the same time.
Those were the times! Most of the Wooyoung culture is gone now, and most of us don’t give much thought to the origins of our daily food unless it relates to imported beef, pork, chicken, foot-and-mouth disease, Avian Influenza, or things made in China.
▲ Photo courtesy Sinchon Elementary School
It is fortunate, though, that more people are contemplating how the relationship between producers and consumers could be made closer. Many agree that the key to the answer could begin with local organic food.
One of the best places to come across environmentally-friendly produce is in the lunchrooms of 30 Jeju schools. These schools supply meals made exclusively from environmentally friendly produce, and starting this year the Jeju government plans to expand this benefit to all schools on Jeju island. Sinchon Elementary School in Jocheon-eup must be one of the best schools in this regard, where some of the ingredients for school meals are harvested from the school’s Wooyoung. Moreover, students help grow the organic produce, teaching them where what they eat comes from in a natural way.
The five-day market is another place where you can buy pesticide, chemical, and fertilizer-free produce, where some of the old women grow the products themselves and sell what they don’t eat. The price cannot be lower, and you are likely to get more than you pay for if you can warm the hearts of these grandmothers.
If you wish to buy prepared food like organic snacks, instant noodles, or organic household items, shops such as Moogong-ine, Hansalim and Chorokmaeul scattered around Jeju City are good choices. Though most of them are not local, they are a must-visit for parents with young children.
Yang Yong Jin says that the size of Jeju is considered to be perfect for activating the local food market. The traditional vegetarian food culture is competitive in the overseas market as well, derived as it is from the unique natural environment. This natural state could attract more visitors to Jeju and its food industry simply by using its own culture.
He emphasized that Jeju Island, where productivity is higher thanks to the climate, is the best place to produce organic food. The problem of containing a high ratio of water inside the produce can be easily solved by using the right recipe and adjusting the water quantity to the appropriate level for cooking. If we rediscover Jeju’s cultural merits in a wider context, business opportunities that utilize this asset seem countless.
All of this makes me think of the common phrase, “You are what you eat.” From this perspective, knowing where what you eat comes from might give you a clue as to who you are, because eating constitutes an essential and fundamental part of our lives. I believe the closer a relationship we have with our food, the more grateful we feel towards nature and the local community and the more connected and grounded our lives become. In this sense, Jeju is heading in the right direction.
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