The South Korean capital of Seoul, where I live, has in the 21st century astonished visiting Westerners with its technology, its infrastructure, and its sheer urban vitality. It strikes many of those Westerners (and I include myself among them) as considerably more developed than anywhere in the countries they came from. But however much Seoul may feel like the future, nowhere in Korea has the past wholly vanished. Take the bulbous earthenware jars still visible on more than a few of the country’s terraces and rooftops, meant to hold condiments like soybean and red pepper paste as well as that world-famous symbol of not just Korean cuisine but Korean culture itself, the fermented cabbage known as kimchi.
Commonly called hangari, or more traditionally onggi, these jars essential to the fermentation of kimchi and other Korean foods are today produced in large numbers with industrial methods. But there are also Korean potters who’ve stuck to the old ways — and in a select few cases, the very old ways indeed. Take Jin-Gyu, the subject of the video above, a short documentary from Eater’s “Handmade” series.
“I’m the youngest of the intangible cultural assets in Korea,” he says, referring to the official list of Important Intangible Cultural Properties introduced to protect long-standing traditions in music, dance, and craft just as the country began its unprecedented surge into modernity. The making of onggi itself, a process Jin-Gyu demonstrates from start to finish in the video, is Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 96.
After pounding his clay into shape while describing how its soil first flows down from the mountains, Jin-gyu places it onto his wheel and gives it the distinctive shape recognizable from all those terraces and rooftops. This requires constant use of his hands, occasional use of his feet, and even the application of traditional tools that he also made himself. The contrast with traditional Japanese pottery, its emphasis on small-scale elegance and near-existentialist attitude toward the final product, is instructive: the Korean variety, as Jin-gyu practices it, has a different energy, more of an emotional and physical rusticity. “This makes me so happy,” he says after removing finished jar from the kiln originally built by his onggi-potter father. “After 300 years, it’ll return to the soil.” But there are plenty of hearty meals to be had in the meantime, none of them without kimchi.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.