Keeping food cool, the ancient way

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Keeping food cool, the ancient way

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As a fierce wind ripped across the Mi Stream one recent morning, two men in rough clothes sawed ice from its frozen surface. The goal: to demonstrate how refrigeration worked in 6th century Korea.
The 5th Ice Storage Festival, held on a tributary of the Nakdong River near Andong in north Gyeongsang province, harks back to a time when Koreans cut large blocks of winter ice to keep perishable foods cool through the summer months.
Since the year 505, or the 6th year of King Jijung’s reign, until the arrival of freon and electricity centuries later, Koreans used stone bunkers to store blocks of ice throughout the year. These seokbinggo, literally “stone ice storage,” were located around the country. Local governments sometimes delivered ice to palaces, but mostly used ice as a means to prevent special local products from spoiling on the way to a palace.
The winter sun remained behind the ridge as the 30-meter-wide Mi Stream was shadowed by nearby Am Mountain. The water temperature was 15 degrees below Celsius ― typical of the Sohan period around Jan. 6 when Koreans say temperatures are the coldest of the year.
During breaks from using a two-man saw to cut the ice, men jumped up and down in the piercing cold. Goh Young-hak, who played the role of manager in this re-enactment, looked satisfied saying, “Thanks to the cold, ice conditions are the finest since we organized the festival.”
When the demonstration of the Joseon era sawing ice process was completed, skilled and hearty men stepped in to finish the job with power saws. After twenty minutes, a giant ice cube was floating on the river.
Even with power saws, it isn’t easy to saw a block of ice from a frozen river. “We broke a blade already,” said Jo Byeong-tae, secretary-general of the committee. “During the Joseon Dynasty when there were no power saws, commoners secretly ran away to avoid the arduous forced labor of sawing ice.”
There were straw huts to provide shelter from the wind, and jars of Dongdongju, a fermented rice wine, quenched thirst. Nearby, an oxcart stood waiting to deliver ice to the seokbinggo.
Lee Dongsam, 66, who salts mackerel for a living said, “I used to ride in oxcarts like that when I was a kid. I couldn’t be happier than to see the Ice Storage Festival restored.”
Members of the preservation committee are mainly workers from the Andong Seasoned Mackerel Company. They explained that since they make money by selling seasoned mackerel, it is their job to maintain Andong’s traditional culture.
Meanwhile, four men were using hooks to haul a block of ice out of the river. After a struggle, they fitted the ice with straw ropes and dragged it to a designated place. Each block was about 50 centimeters (20 inches) thick, weighing 120 kilograms (264 pounds).
On the riverside, someone lit a wood fire to relieve the cold. As the blocks of ice piled up, a Korean traditional music troupe came to announce the official start of the Ice Storage Festival. Women dressed in hanbok were holding flags with slogans like “The day seasoned mackerel from Nakdong River went into the seokbinggo” and “Seasoned mackerel of Andong seokbinggo, an offering to the king.”
The Andong Seokbinggo Preservation Committee, which organized the festival, decided to expand this year’s festival by adding traditional winter pastimes such as flying kites and spinning tops near Andong Dam.
“The winter festival is worth restoring because winter is the only season without a festival. I want to generate publicity that Koreans are the only people who enjoy ice for all four seasons throughout the year,” said the secretary-general of the Andong International Mask Dance Office.
Participants accumulate ice for ten days, then carry it to the Andong seokbinggo near Andong Dam by wagon on Jan. 20. It is said that ice stored in this seokbinggo lasted until autumn, and that the local chief gave seasoned mackerel as an offering to the king, keeping it cool on ice.


by Song Yee-ho, Hong Gweon-sam

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