Secrets of a traditional delicacy

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Secrets of a traditional delicacy


Any good jesa, the Korean ancestral rite, will include not only a smorgasboard of freshly harvested food, but also a set of hangwa, a kind of Korean snack treat. The fact that the food is being offered to one’s ancestors ― always worthy of veneration in Confucian cultures ― explains why hangwa has typically been carefully hand-made.
Not that people have time for that these days, especially considering how anyone can go to the corner store and buy a few mass-produced packs of the stuff.
But for the members of the Kwon clan of Andong, North Gyeongsang province, hangwa is anything but instant. Makers of the candy, the Kwon clan spends several days making sure each batch is done correctly ― traditionally. Living in the small town of Daksil, where people have made hangwa for 500 years, the daughters-in-law of the Kwon clan have learned the secrets of how to properly grind the glutinous rice and coat the snack with a grain syrup. The lessons are taught in the town’s women’s community center, a location that hardly appears secretive, but the techniques taught here are not open to the public.
These 22 Kwon daughters-in-law make hangwa everyday in a small tile-roof building with a wooden signboard that reads only, “Daksil Hangwa.” Stepping behind the paper doors, a visitor is hit by the sweetness of the room’s scent. The women sit on the floor, which was covered with rice flour and other ingredients, and busily paste together wads of sticky rice and coating the snack with syrup.
A roll of paper contained a list of destinations for the treat: Seoul, Busan, Daejeon and everyplace in between. In the 15 years since the Daksil Village Women’s Community Center began selling hangwa, the town’s reputation has spread so far and wide that the number of orders can be overwhelming; before the Lunar New Year’s or Chuseok holidays, the women must work every day from 9 in the morning until 2 at night. Even with out a holiday approaching, the center is hit by a deluge of orders to fill the plates for 60th birthday parties (known as hwangap) or wedding ceremonies.
Seeing the popularity of the town’s candy, major department stores and snack-treat companies have offered the center exclusive contracts, only to be turned down. Daksil Hangwa restricts its work force to 22 women, and that number of persons can only make so much candy.
Asked why they don’t use machinery or hire more workers, the women replied cryptically that because the hangwa is used for ancestral rites, it must be made “earnestly.”
The center has four main rooms: one for refining the ingredients, one for drying the hangwa, one for frying it and one for decorating it. All steps are done by hand. They first grind sticky rice, then steam it in a rice steamer and knead it with a wooden roller into into a piece about the size of a hand. The rice pancakes are then dried and roasted in oil while pressed and flattened by a wooden spatula. Once the pieces are ready, they are coated with a starch syrup and puffed rice.
The basic process can be used to make a wide variety of treats. One example is ipgwa, which has a thicker consistency but melts softly in one’s mouth. Another variation is jangwa, which is made in the shape of a flower by using sticky rice, sliced raisins and starch syrup. Jangwa is notoriously difficult to make ― at Daksil Hangwa, it is done by old women wearing magnifying glasses.
“Since I came here after I got married, I learned how to make hangwa by looking over my mother-in-law’s shoulders,” said Sin Yok-mae, 70. “It’s been 50 years already. No wonder I can make it with my eyes closed.”
She said making yakgwa, a delicate deep-fried honey cookie, required pouring refined rice wine, soju, cinnamon powder and ginger into a dough made from sticky rice. She added that she uses no artificial ingredients.
Depending on their generation, women call each other “Granny,” “Auntie” or “Sister.” When two women are in the same age group, they call each other by their regional origin, followed by the word “bride.” For example, a women from Gyeongju is called “Gyeongju bride.” Almost all are in their 60s and 70s, with two or three women being younger. All are close and friendly, even sisters-in-law, a relationship in Korea that is typically marked by hostility. They spend more than 10 hours a day together making hangwa, but they always have something to talk about: husbands and children.
“One deliveryman told us that a husband from Daksil village is the luckiest in the country,” one woman said. “When they’re young, their wives take care of household chores. When they get old, wives make money by making hangwa.”
They say they are proud to be using techniques polished by generations of hangwa-makers, but they add that they relieve their stress by chattering about their husbands. They say that making hangwa not only provides them with extra money to pass down to their grandchildren, but also helps prevent the emergence of senility by forcing them to use their heads and hands every day.
They’re certainly not in it for the money. Each woman makes about 200,00 won ($209) to 300,000 for a month. The hangwa is also cheap considering the amount of work required to make it. Most of the money the center earns is spent on ingredients. They use only sticky rice that has been harvested locally and buy only the best-quality taffy, from Jeongeup, Jeolla province.
The women cannot work from July to August because the hot weather can change the flavor of the hangwa. They refuse to sell hangwa that does not have the right taste or shape, even though they might lose money. Yet none of them say they want to raise the price or increase production. Hangwa’s traditions, they say, come complete with an ethical code. But most importantly, they say they believe every piece of hangwa has to be made with enthusiasm because it will be used for ancestral services and wedding ceremonies, the most important events in a person’s life.

by Shin Eun-jin

Daksil Maeul Hangwa is sold in 35,000 won, 60,000 won and 80,000 won batches. The packages can be made according to purpose. Orders should be placed at least 10 days in advance, and earlier ahead of the Lunar New Year’s or Chuseok holidays. For more information, contact Daksil village women’s community center at (054) 673-9541.
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