Everything but the sink

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Everything but the sink

In Korea, where anything old is often recklessly abandoned in favor of the modern and the latest, attempts at preserving the past are scarce. Hence, the Rice Cake-Kitchen Utensils Museum tucked away in Waryong-dong, in the central Jongno district of Seoul, is a delightful surprise for people who wish a glimpse into the domestic life of old Korea.

The private museum, which officially opened Jan. 19, is a labor of love of Yoon Sook-ja's, a professor of Korean Traditional Cuisine at BaeWha Women's Junior College and the head of the Institute of Traditional Korean Food. Ms. Yoon, 55, began collecting kitchen utensils some 20 years ago as she roamed the Korean countryside learning traditional regional cooking.

"I was worried that old, everyday kitchen tools would vanish because they are not seen as valuable. So I salvaged and bought old utensils lying abandoned in kitchens and storage rooms," Ms. Yoon said.

What began as a hobby steadily grew until she could no longer keep all the 2,000 or so knickknacks at home. In March 1999, Ms. Yoon showed some of her collection publicly for the first time in a week-long exhibition. Encouraged by the enthusiastic reception, she began to toy with the idea of creating a permanent home for her pots and pans, a project that culminated in the Rice Cake-Kitchen Utensils Museum nearly three years later.

Kitchenwares that certainly would have been found in every Korean home in the 19th century but that have since virtually disappeared are on display at the Kitchen Utensils Museum, on the second floor of the 10-story building that is also home to Ms. Yoon's cooking institute.

Simple bowls ranging from the dainty, shallow saucers for sauces to large, crude soup vessels are exhibited alongside rusted ladles, long square-tipped knives used for cutting tteok (rice cakes), flat frying pans and charcoal braziers. Low-legged tables, called soban, of various sizes and shapes that were used on different occasions are also on display, as well as special wares used in wedding ceremonies and ancestral rites.

The highlight of the exhibition is a replica of a Joseon-period kitchen, complete with fireplace and huge cooking pots on the fireplace. The kitchen in a traditional Korean house also functioned as a furnace, with the heat from the fireplace used to heat the ondol floors in other rooms.

Unlike homes in the West where the kitchen often served as the focal point of family life, Korean women toiled in the kitchen in isolation, separated from the rest of the family. "Kitchens hold a special place in elderly Korean women's hearts. Many tears were shed in the kitchen: Smoke getting in your eyes as you started the fire, scoldings from your mother-in-law, backbreaking work that is never appreciated," Ms. Yoon said. Women often ate alone in the kitchen after the rest of the family had finished their meal.

Comparing the rudimentary cooking tools in the old, simple kitchens - there are no food processors or electric mixers here - to the elaborate foods that emerged from them, one is reminded that good cooking does not necessarily require the sophisticated modern gadgets that we have all grown accustomed to.

A wide variety of traditional rice cakes, from the plain jeolpyeon to the colorful flower-adorned songpyeon, are shown together with the utensils used to make them, including sieves, siru (steamers) large enough to hold a small child and a flat wooden board used to pound steamed sticky rice to make injeolmi. Also on display are wooden blocks used to imprint the tteok with designs, such as geometric patterns, flowers and birds.

Today, only about 20 types of tteok survive, compared to over 200 varieties that were available during the Joseon period, according to Ms. Yoon.

"Tteok began to lose its popularity after the liberation from Japanese colonial rule as Western bread and cakes were introduced into the country," said Ms. Yoon. "People were won over by the sweet taste."

In addition to the change in people's palates, the difficulty in storing leftover tteok also contributed to the dish's decline. Tteok, usually made in large quantities, is notoriously difficult to store. It dries quickly, and can become concrete-hard overnight.

"Tteok was made in generous quantities because it was meant to be shared among neighbors and friends. For example, baekseolgi, white rice cake, which is eaten to mark 100 days from a baby's birth, was supposed to be passed around to 100 families so that the baby may live to be 100. But with smaller families and little contact among neighbors these days, that must also change," Ms. Yoon said.

She is working on developing ways of making more convenient, smaller-sized tteok batches using traditional ingredients that retain the same taste and flavor.

Modern adaptations can also boost tteok consumption, according to Ms. Yoon. She has developed the tteok sandwich, for which she has a patent pending. Slices of plain baekseolgi replace the bread and the filling is made of cabbage, cucumber and carrot mixed with mayonnaise with sprinklings of chopped dates, walnuts and pine nuts, giving it a nutty flavor. "The baek-seolgi recipe is adjusted for a more chewy texture," she explained.

Although people rarely make tteok at home these days, save perhaps for some songpyeon to be eaten on Chuseok, Korean Thanksgiving Day, because they think the process is too complicated, Ms. Yoon said basic tteok is not at all difficult to make at home. "For baekseolgi, all you need is rice flour and some salt. Sprinkle the rice powder mixed with salt on a piece of cloth lining the steamer, steam the mixture over boiling water for 10 minutes and you've got your basic tteok," she said.

For the culinary-challenged who would rather sample ready-made tteok, a stop at Jilsiru, a cafe on the first floor of the building that houses the museum, is a must. The cafe serves 50 traditional and modern varieties of tteok, including the tteok sandwich, sold by the piece, as well as a selection of traditional Korean beverages.

The Rice Cake-Kitchen Utensils Museum is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is 3,000 won ($2.25) for adults and 2,000 won for students. For more information, call the museum at (02)741-5411.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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