The traditional Jeju kitchen was a place
where women cooked over a fire pit and family
members sat around on the earthen floor
sharing a meal. Distinctly different from
the kitchens of the mainland, it embodied
the life of haenyeo, the female deep sea divers
who spend their lives laboring in the cold,
treacherous waters off the island.
Oh Soon-ah is an 89-year-old haenyeo of Jeju Island, a female diver who harvests seafood with her bare hands for a living. She lives alone in a small, one-bedroom slate house in Pyoseon-myeon, located along a path that leads to the sea. It looks like it could have been a mom-and-pop store frequented by little children. It’s the perfect place for a woman who has spent her whole life toiling away in the sea and fields to live out her twilight years.
Her house is entered by opening a sliding door facing the road. It’s a simple space with a sink, a refrigerator, a wood-floored hall that serves as a living room, a room with a bed, and a kitchen-cum-storeroom. The structure and layout are much like that of a studio apartment in the city. Oh adores this little old house. Opening the door to the yard, she can see the house where her married son and his wife live with her grandchildren. She busily tends to their vegetable garden so that it is free of weeds.
A House with Two Separate Living Quarters
It is a long-held custom on Jeju Island for parents to move out to an annex when they reach old age, and for their married children to move into the main living quarters. This is why traditional houses in Jeju often have two or three separate living quarters in the same enclosure. Since the living spaces are separate, parents do not usually eat with their married children. Instead, they keep to their own space and cook their meals separately.
Oh sets the dishes on a round aluminum table that shows signs of long use. We eat together in her living room where there is a sink and a refrigerator — a treasure trove of products from the sea, including sea urchin and seaweed. She serves pork seaweed soup made with fresh raw brown seaweed and chunks of pork brought to a boil and simmered for a long time. It’s a dish served only on special occasions in Jeju. Pork fat floats around the surface. I take a spoonful; it has a unique taste that is the perfect blend of the sea and the land. The distinctive taste can only be experienced in Jeju, like the taste of momguk (gulfweed soup), a classic Jeju dish made with seaweed and pork bone broth that women eat after giving birth. “I’m content with this little house and the life I have now,” says the old haenyeo with a bright smile. It seems the days when she had to sit on the earthen floor of the kitchen and stoke a fire are a distant memory.
There was a time when she lived in a house with a spacious kitchen. In those days, Jeju people called the kitchen jeongji. It looked very different from the kitchens of the mainland, the biggest difference being that cooking and heating were done at separate places. There was a fire hole called gulmuk used for heating the rooms and a separate cooking fireplace called sotdeok. Yi Hyeong-sang, a county magistrate of Jeju in the 18th-century Joseon Dynasty, wrote in “Various Records of Service on the Southern Island” (Namhwan bangmul), “The fireplace in the kitchen is used solely for cooking.” When housing improvement projects were launched in the 1970s, furnaces made of cement were introduced in the kitchen and structural changes were made to houses so that the fire could also be used to heat the rooms.
The houses on the mainland used the same heat source for cooking and heating, so the kitchen had to be right next to the main room, whereas in Jeju homes, the main room and kitchen were far apart.
From the jar on her back, which she uses to gather potable water, a haenyeo pours water into a big storage jar for use in the kitchen.
Primitive Yet Practical
Oh reminisces about her maiden home and the kitchen there. She recalls the five pots in the kitchen.
“We put a stone on each side of the fire pit and one behind it, and placed the pot on top. The fire would blaze up through the three holes between the stones. After the rice was cooked, we scooped it into a large aluminum bowl. The whole family gathered around, each holding a spoon, and we all dug in,” she says.
Back in those days, it wasn’t hard to locate the kitchen when you entered someone’s house. All you had to do was find the mulpang placed next to the kitchen door, that is, a flat slab of stone propped up by stone pillars where a round water jar was placed. It was a convenient setup that allowed women working in the kitchen easy access to fresh water. Water pipes weren’t yet installed in houses at that time, and an important daily task for women was fetching water and filling the jar.
“When I was young, I used to carry a small water pot on my back and fill it with spring water. When I got home, my mother poured the water into the jar. Sometimes, I broke the pot on my way back and got a good scolding,” Oh recalls.
When you opened the wooden kitchen door, a strong earthy smell would greet your nose. The clay floor, well tamped down, looked shiny. There was a small bush clover broom in the corner that was used to sweep the floor whenever possible. As soon as the women got back from working in the sea or the fields, they would head straight to the kitchen, sit on a ring-shaped mat made of braided rush, and build a fire in the fire pit.
“If the men in the house didn’t know how to make rush mats, they would make a wooden seat for the women to sit on while working in the kitchen,” Oh says.
At mealtimes in the old days, the whole family, from children to adults, sat on their own rush mats laid out on the kitchen floor and ate together.
On one side of the kitchen, there was a water jar placed on top of a flat stone, and on the other side, a cupboard called salle in the Jeju dialect, which was used to store tableware and utensils. After the meal, the dishes were taken outside through the back door and washed in the outdoor washing area that was enclosed with stones, then returned to the cupboard.
The structure of Jeju kitchens differed slightly by region, but one common feature was that the iron pots were placed on stones, not on a clay stove. There were usually three to five pots depending on the size of the kitchen. In the large pots water was heated for family members to wash with after coming home from work. The pots had various uses depending on size, from cooking rice to making soup and side dishes.
A traditional Jeju house and its crock terrace at the Jeju Folk Village. The terrace and the vegetable garden are right outside the back door of the kitchen, making work a little bit easier for the women of the house.
In thatched-roof houses, the kitchens were made from mud and stone and had a tiny door that allowed the smoke from the fire to escape. The old Jeju kitchens may have been primitive, but they were practical in terms of structure.
“Back in those days, women didn’t suffer from what you would call female trouble. The heat from the furnace would naturally raise the body temperature, which had a sterilizing effect,” says a neighbor, Go Bok-hui.
The old kitchens were hot and stuffy; the acrid smoke from the furnace stung the eyes making you tear up. When her mother handed her a poker and told her to stoke the fire, the 12-year-old Oh had no choice but to stay put in front of the blazing kitchen furnace. Considerable know-how was required to control the fire with dry leaves or firewood, and it wasn’t an easy task for a young girl.
A small tray table and a wooden basin await use on top of the kitchen cupboard, called salle in Jeju dialect.
Enduring the Heat and Smoke
“Bean porridge and soybean soup were the most difficult to make,” says Oh. “You had to keep a close watch to make sure it didn’t overflow. If you looked away for even a minute, the broth would splatter all over the place leaving little to eat. What’s worse, imagine what would happen if the scalding hot broth splattered onto your skin? The trick to make sure that doesn’t happen is to add wild greens or sprinkle a little salt into the pot when the broth starts to boil.”
Bean porridge and soybean soup are traditional dishes of Jeju that are tricky to make. So before stepping outside to get soybean paste, Oh’s mother would tell her young daughter to watch the pot, cautioning her not to stir the soup too much and render it tasteless.
Right outside the back door of the kitchen was a vegetable garden and terrace for crocks containing various condiments and sauces, so you could just step outside and get soybean paste or soy sauce for cooking. Also, near the kitchen was a storage room where grain jars were kept.
It was hard work collecting firewood and making sure the supply never ran out. Kindling consisted of leftover fodder, pine needles, barley straw and dead branches that were stacked up on one side of the kitchen. Barley straw was the best for fueling a fire. After cooking on such a fire, the bottom of the pot became grimy with soot and had to be given a good scrub each time. If the pots were left unclean, people would think you were lazy. The pot lid was rubbed with pig fat to give it luster. A kitchen full of neatly arranged gleaming pots spoke for the industriousness of the lady of the house. At times, kind husbands would help out and clean the heavy pot, but it was usually the women’s job.
A by-product of burning firewood is ash. The ash was pushed to the back of the kitchen furnace while stoking the fire and would pile up in the empty space of around 50 to 60 centimeters between the cooking fireplace and the wall. Called bulchi, the ash was swept into a container and used as fertilizer.
In some villages, the ash was mixed with buckwheat seed and planted in the fields. Small amounts of the mixture were placed in the furrows, and a tool made from twigs was used to sweep over the soil to cover the seeds. This would produce a good harvest.
In contrast to kitchens of the mainland, which are built with a cooking range, in the Jeju kitchen the cooking pots are placed above the fire on stones, arranged one on either side and one at the back. Each pot was used for a different purpose.
The rice cooked
in the kitchen was
not just rice.
It was the love of the
mother, who would
put up with the heat
and smoke for
her family, wiping away
tears from burning eyes
with a deep sigh.
The sweet smell of
barley rice wafted
through the yard,
A Place Filled with Warm Memories
In the traditional Jeju kitchen, meals were prepared on an earthen floor that was kept as clean as a wooden floor. People sat on the floor and warmed their bodies in front of the fire; the ash was used to fertilize the crops that would feed them. The rice cooked in the kitchen was not just rice. It was the love of the mother, who would put up with the heat and smoke for her family, wiping away tears from burning eyes with a deep sigh. The sweet smell of barley rice wafted through the yard, stimulating the appetite.
From a modern perspective, the old Jeju kitchen may seem inconvenient. But it was a place that was in touch with nature; a place filled with love and warmth where family members gathered to eat together and receive guests. Today, most Jeju kitchens have been modernized, equipped with a sink and gas stove. Progress has made the island’s old kitchens a remnant of the past. Likewise, Oh’s childhood days when she used to sit in front of the kitchen furnace staring at the flickering flames are now a distant memory.
Today, the traditional kitchen of Jeju exists only in folk villages. It was a place where the gentle breeze from the bamboo grove would float through the door, cooling the sweat on the woman’s forehead as she tended the fire; a place embracing all things from the land and the sea.