The value of things often becomes underestimated when they are too visible. That is why some Jeju islanders say that they do not understand why tourists visit Jeju. From their point of view, it is just an ordinary sky and landscape.
However, almost every Jeju native who has spent some time off the island will agree that it has a unique and beautiful landscape and that it is truly a good place to live. This not only from an aesthetic point of view. Jeju also has a clean environment, and the islanders’ life is generally much more laid-back compared to that of big cities.
The same goes with food. Many Jeju natives have welcomed franchised Western-style restaurants, even thinking they are finally benefitting from the developed culture of the mainland. However, Jeju traditional home cooked meals have become one of their available choices when eating out. They are ready to pay extra to have traditional Jeju food when it is nicely presented as health food in contrast to modern home cooking which has rapidly become westernized and dominated by processed food.
Dining with Yang Yong Jin, a traditional Jeju food expert, is definitely a pleasant experience because he entertains people by interpreting and explaining Jeju traditional food culture, providing us with a better understanding of Jeju. It is no exaggeration that cooking and eating is everyone’s concern.
On a warm spring day in late April, we had lunch at Hong So Ban, a restaurant which offers Jeju traditional home cooking while partly modifying its style to satisfy modern tastes. Beginning our food journey, Mr. Yang affirms that traditional Jeju cooking is slow local food while at the same time simple raw food. Considering that this is what many young urbanites are looking for in their diet, I was reminded of the expression “look no further for a solution.”
It is widely known that the haenyeo, female divers, will catch only as much marine products as they can get by hand with no breathing equipment. According to Mr. Yang, saving for tomorrow was unnecessary in the Jeju islander’s life. People would rather rely on the daily harvest they have from sea or land.
Wondam, a sort of stone wall in the sea along the coast acting as a net to catch fish at low tide, is a good example. Mel is a kind of anchovy easily caught in the sea surrounding Jeju during this time of year. Local people are content with the catch left inside the wondam when the tide goes out. Some hardcore salted fish lovers do not hesitate to lavish praise on Jeju pickled mel, but the truth is that people did not catch mel to pickle it. They do so only when they have a surplus.
Kimchi is widely known as a representative traditional Korean food, but it is actually not a traditional Jeju food according to Mr. Yang. One of kimchi’s biggest values is its storability, but its history on Jeju is not very old, whether it is thanks to the island’s mild climate or because of an ingenious way of living. From April to early May, fields of oreum (parasitic volcanos) and Gotjawal (Jeju unique forests) become suddenly crowded with people collecting gosari, the fiddlehead (a type of fern). Based on Mr. Yang’s description these scenes would look strange to the eyes of Jeju islanders’ ancestors because they preferred to grow agricultural produce in their own agricultural fields called wooyeong rather than gather wild plants.
A few exceptions are gosari, shiitake and a variety of wild berries, but Jeju natives traditionally dry and preserve as much gosari as they need in order to prepare food for Jesa, the annual ancestral rites. On Jeju, there is an old saying that one handful of gosari is enough to hold a memorial ceremony for ancestors. By that account, we can assume that the quantity of gosari in storage was insignificant considering its huge abundance in mountain areas and its important place in traditional ceremonies.
The conversation with Mr. Yang that day made me realize that the traditional Jeju food culture is the fruit of Jeju islanders’ constant efforts to adapt to their unique environment, which I had overlooked until then. I respect how our ancestors lived humbly.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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