The whole tooth behind salty brushingIt was 1954 when Koreans first encountered toothpaste. It was introduced by Lakheui Chemical Industry Corp., which soon after changed its name to an English word similar in sound, although completely different in meaning, Lucky Group － better-known today as LG.
For many centuries before toothpaste, Koreans cleaned their teeth using salt, sometimes on a finger or on bits of straw. They did not use tiny salt granules like table salt, but rather large-grained sea salt, the kind otherwise used for preserving or salting vegetables, especially for making kimchi.
Scientifically, salt has been proven to have a disinfecting effect on the teeth. The experience of a grain of salt being rubbed all over your teeth, however, may not be so pleasant, not to mention its briny taste.
Nowadays, while few Koreans continue to follow their ancestors' practice of rubbing their teeth with sea salt, the tradition lives on, albeit slightly modified, in the form of jukyeom, or bamboo salt toothpaste.
To produce bamboo salt, as written in traditional oriental medicine textbooks, it takes the natural power of the earth, sky and ocean. First, fill the empty center of a big green bamboo tree with sun-dried salt from the Yellow Sea. The bamboo tree should be more than 3 years old and cut in April. Then, seal the top and bottom of the bamboo with yellow soil, and put it in an iron kiln heated to 1,300 degrees centigrade. The bamboo with salt in it has to be fired nine times in a kiln with a pine wood fire.
The bamboo salt, according to the 1,500-year-old recipe, is a secret formula for protecting against gingivitis, healing inflammation of the gums and stopping bleeding.
In the early 1990s, it became quite a fad for local companies to produce toothpaste with bamboo salt, a marketing strategy popular with middle-aged people most likely to go for something herbal and traditional.
According to Oh Gang-gook, a member of LG Household & Healthcare, bamboo salt toothpastes took more than 25 percent of the local toothpaste market last year, despite their unpleasant taste.
Hahn In-ja, a housewife, said, "I first tried the bamboo salt toothpaste for toothaches, and found it took away the pain, but I could not stand the taste."
Ms. Hahn changed her toothpaste, but the pain returned, so she went back to her bamboo salt toothpaste. "At least, the bamboo salt works for toothaches," she said.
Bamboo salt, though, is now confronting a rival with a similar concept － songyeom, or pine tree salt toothpaste.
First released in 2000, it took 15 percent of the market last year, according to Kim Hyo-jeong, a spokeswoman for Pacific Corporation, also known as Taepyeongyang.
Instead of burning salt in bamboo trees, it takes extract from pine needles. Salt is first burned alone at 900 degrees centigrade, then mixed with the pine extract. The mixture is put into capsule form and added to the toothpaste.
Ms. Kim told the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition, "Because the salt is capsulized, this pine tree salt toothpaste is similar to ordinary products and is still refreshing, but without the bad taste."
She claimed that pine salt toothpastes are similar in effect to the bamboo salt toothpastes. The product is even going to be exported to several foreign countries including the United States this year.
Ms. Kim added, "These oriental herbal toothpastes are the result of the collaboration of Western science and Eastern medicine."
by Chun Su-jin