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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Ode to 옹기: An examination of culinary tradition, memory, and belonging in the Korean diaspora


옹기 are earthenware pots originating on the Korean peninsula; vessels that have sustained kitchens and designed palettes since before the common era. Home to fermented vegetables, cooking pastes, and alcoholic beverages, 옹기 are not so much culinary tools (though their practical benefits are innumerable) as they are symbols of nostalgia, artistry, and life. In turn, their fading regularity today provokes a greater discourse questioning the effects of modernity and the fluidity of tradition across generations of Korean diaspora. Beginning with 옹기, this paper analyzes the concept of authenticity as it appears in several diasporic negotiations of self, “home,” and belonging. Often when writing “ethnic” food, assumptions are liberally made, and the cuisine is homogenized—both intentionally and not, though this distinction matters little when the effect is the same. In light of this, terms like 고추장 are indexed as simply “spicy red pepper paste” rather than “Korean spicy red pepper paste”–a nuanced yet persistent attempt at asserting the narrative as told for and by the subjects it concerns, rather than in observation of them. While food is crucial to many diasporic relationships with “home,” for some the two are completely unrelated, a detail seldom acknowledged by Western perspectives on the culinary world. We are not defined by authenticity nor our proximity to it, and our experiences parallel one another to a far lesser extent than they are unique, such that any attempt to generalize them is futile. Instead, it is much more substantial to recognize—and rejoice in—the endless variety of our narratives, identities, and dinner tables.

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