▲ The nangpoon dining style, where food is shared from one pot. Photo courtesy Jeju Traditional Food Institute
Nangpoon is a term used to describe the Jeju traditional country style of dining. The name literally means “yellow brass pot” in the Jeju dialect. This type of large pot was the centerpiece of nearly every meal served in Jeju from the early 1900s to the 1960s, after which Jeju became more modern. But the phrase encapsulates the whole concept of Jeju dining, from the type of food served to the way it was prepared, the reasons behind the style and the people who grew, caught and ate the food.
Nangpoon is not just dining, but symbolic of the simple Jeju traditional way of life. By eating this type of meal now, modern people can experience the province’s traditional culture and grow closer to the history of Jeju people.
The nangpoon style of dining was born from the schedule of Jeju’s women. As they were primarily responsible for providing for the family, rearing the children and taking care of the household, they had little time to spare. The nangpoon pot held a large serving of the main dish for everyone in the household to share, eliminating the additional preparation and cleaning of individual bowls for each family member. This was convenient both in the early morning and for the evening meal. The women, who usually worked as haenyo or farmers, rose before dawn and quickly made a morning meal for the family before heading off to work. In the evenings, they would come home weary and also make the evening meal as quickly and simply as possible to feed their hungry brood.
Nangpoon dining is rooted in this concept that every second spent cooking is a second not working and making money for the household. Jeju women cooked efficiently and kept all preparation to an absolute minimum, creating a uniquely fresh style of cuisine that is only seen on the island. The traditional nangpoon meal included a grain dish in the large pot, vegetable and seafood side dishes in the Korean style and a bowl of soup for each person.
The volcanic soil of Jeju was too porous to hold water for rice paddies, so the grains most common were barley, buckwheat, and millet. These were steamed in a pot, then placed in the pot and usually mixed with soy sauce and sea vegetables. As heavy grains were the common centerpiece of the meal, soup became an important accompaniment. The hot soup facilitated the easy chewing and digestion of the tough grains. Soup is still prevalent in Jeju meals although the hearty grains have been replaced for the most part with rice.
Sea urchin roe soup was commonly eaten, cooked with chopped thick green sea weed. Another popular soup was dwenjang guk, or fermented soybean paste soup. Unlike the mainland style where dwenjang is added to boiling water, Jeju women put the paste in cold water and added cabbage leaves ripped apart with their hands while it boiled for a quick soup.
Food gathered from the sea is also a major player in nangpoon meals. As side dishes, local fish including oakdom, chari and galchi were often served. Raw seafood was common, simply drenched in pepper sauce and tossed in a dish. Tiny dried meulchi, or anchovies, were sometimes served as well as chut gal, small pieces of salty fermented fish. Sea vegetables of all kinds were served as side dishes, in soup and with the grains. Jeju food has always had a strong connection to the sea and nangpoon meals especially rely on fresh food daily gathered from the sea.
The other side dishes were made from garden vegetables grown near the house. Surprisingly, in Jeju fermented kimchi was seen as too labor-intensive for daily work, so fresh kimchi was thrown together before a meal by mixing greens with pepper and salt.
”We eat nangpoon with tears,” is a Jeju proverb reflecting that the dining style was born out of the reality of feeding a family. The land was harsh and difficult to farm and families faced food and water shortages. The meal was a time when the whole family gathered together, each grabbing a spoon and huddling around a large brass pot in the kitchen. Family members would fight over food, sometimes resorting to drawing a line in the barley so a quick eater wouldn’t finish it all. When times were really tough, mothers would go without so their children could have a few bites more. But the style of eating also reflects the cultural tradition of close family bonds and the idea that the family shares a common destiny. When a guest came over, they would simply be handed a spoon and invited into the circle of hungry mouths clamoring for food. This culture of community made sharing a natural part of life.
Nangpoon dining is no longer a necessity, but people now recognize the nutritional value of such a diet. The benefits of eating a diet rich in whole grains, fresh vegetables, raw sea food and low-calorie soups is now accepted everywhere. Although nangpoon dining was considered utilitarian, to a modern palate used to complex and processed foods, the simple clean flavors of such a meal are refreshing and nourishing.
During the holiday season, when the spirit of community, family, and connection to others is emphasized, try a nangpoon meal with your friends and family. Many traditional restaurants offer the types of food common on a nangpoon menu. With or without the yellow pot, remember how far Jeju has come from the struggles of just one generation ago and use the dining experience to appreciate the culture, heritage and history of the people who have survived on this island for so long.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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