[FOUNTAIN]The gift of gulbi

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[FOUNTAIN]The gift of gulbi

Galbi, beef ribs, and gulbi, dried croaker, are favorite holiday gifts among Koreans. Galbi especially is the unchallenged champion of holiday presents. While gulbi replaced galbi as the most popular gift of the holiday season in 2004 during the mad cow disease scare, galbi returned to first place a year later. The industry forecasts that ranking will remain unchanged this year as well.
However, galbi can never be a match for gulbi when it comes to the history of gift-giving. The giving of gulbi goes back to the Goryeo Dynasty. According to historical records, Lee Ja-gyeom, an influential courtier, was the first person to use gulbi as a present. Two of his daughters married to the kings of Goryeo, King Yejong and King Injong, and as the father of queens, he wielded great power. He later tried to kill King Injong and was exiled to Yeonggwang. There, he tasted dried croaker, a local specialty, for the first time and was impressed by its delicate taste.
Mr. Lee offered the dried fish as tribute to the king in the hope of being forgiven. He named it “gulbi,” meaning “unyielding.” While Mr. Lee was not released from banishment and died in exile, Yeonggwang gulbi became a regular tribute to the royal court.
By the Joseon period, gulbi was a popular food around the nation. Seo Yu-gu, a scholar during the reign of King Sunjo, described gulbi as “the most delicious and widely eaten seafood in the country for all ranks and classes” in his encyclopedia “Imwongyeongjeji.” Yeonggwang gulbi, especially, was the most beloved food among Koreans. However, maybe because the name giver had an impure intention, gulbi is often used as a bribe. A few years ago, a string of 20 gold-foiled gulbi was sold for 4 million won, ($4,000) and there was a scandal that a politician received a box of gulbi, which was full of cash instead of dried fish.
Similar incidents happened during the Joseon period as well. An incorruptible scholar was promoted to a very high position because of his integrity. His favorite food was gulbi. One day, a young scholar presented him gulbi and asked him to use his influence to obtain him an official position. However, the official strongly rejected the present. When asked why he refused the gift, the official said, “If I take the gulbi and then get fired for taking a bribe, I will become poor and won’t be able to eat gulbi ever again.” He knew that a box of the tasty treat could ruin not just his future but also that of the young scholar.
There is a very thin line between a gift and a bribe. With regard to this, French philosopher Michel de Montaigne once said, “There is no more expensive thing than a free gift.”


by Lee Hoon-beom

The writer is the head of the JoongAng Ilbo’s weekend news team.
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