The Korean Kitchen:
From Clay Stoves to Virtual Reality
SPECIAL FEATURE 3 ‘Something’s Always Simmering in That Kitchen’

The kitchen is a place where people cook and eat food, but now and then, it becomes something far more than that — a work studio for some, and a depository of memories for others. Still others may find traces of their youth engraved there. In every kitchen, something is always simmering, whether it’s rice, soup, or longing.

A house contains a lot of information on the people who live there. The kitchen, especially, where various domestic activities take place, is a practical space providing a vivid glimpse of the resident’s lifestyle and values. A discourse on the kitchen as such a place could be approached by focusing on social and cultural changes. Although the kitchen may not be the main agent of such changes, it has reflected them in some ways, albeit slowly.
To examine how the role and appearance of the kitchen have changed with changes in time, environment and the method of controlling fire is a good way of comparing the lifestyle and culture of the past, present and future.
Meanwhile, highbrow learning offers little insight because the questions and curiosity that intrigue us are usually outside the realm of systematic knowledge. One such question might be, “How did men use the kitchen, which used to be mostly a women’s place, and how do they remember it?”
If an artist describes a certain place to be either overly gloomy and drab, or conspicuously bright, we should not take it at face value. In many cases, artists are self-contradictory people with a talent for amplifying or obscuring emotions. Even supposed conflicts or confrontations might not have existed at all. This happens because artists tend to see a place in reality overlaid with their internal landscapes. This distinct way of relating with a place is often more powerful than any empirical analysis, enhancing our understanding of, attraction to, and empathy toward people and spaces.

“The Golden Legend.” 1958, Oil on canvas, 97 x 130 cm. (top); “This is a Piece of Cheese.”
1936, Oil on canvas, 16.2 x 10.3 cm. René Magritte used his kitchen as a studio, which explains the everyday kitchen objects often featured in his paintings.

The Kitchen, No Longer Ordinary
René Magritte, the Belgian surrealist painter famous for “This is Not a Pipe,” among others, is said to have spent a lot of time in his kitchen, eating, painting and receiving guests. He chose not to have a studio, which he considered to be an objectionable artistic cliché, just as a mustache and beret was for some Parisian artists. He preferred to work in the kitchen of his small apartment, dressed in a suit. He would bump into the table, or burn his hand on the frying pan, or be hit on the elbow as the door was flung open by those coming in and out of the room, the mishap causing his brush to land in the wrong place on the canvas. At meal times, he had to stop working and put away all his equipment — his easel, palettes, brushes, and other things — and set them up again afterwards, repeating the same procedure a few times a day.
Perhaps, this explains the everyday kitchen objects often featured in his paintings, including the cheese under a glass dome in “This is a Piece of Cheese,” or the baguettes flying like airplanes in formation in “The Golden Legend.” These ordinary articles, represented realistically, have been defamiliarized by the unexpected arrangements. Paul Nougé, the poet who initiated the surrealist movement in Belgium, declared that Magritte’s work would make the viewer find that “the world has been altered, that there are no longer any ordinary things.”
Magritte’s kitchen has been preserved in his former house in the Jette district on the outskirts of Brussels, now converted into a Magritte museum. Here the artist lived with his wife for 24 years after returning from Paris in 1930, when he was expelled from the French surrealist group due to a quarrel with André Breton, the founder and theorist of the surrealist movement.
In 1946, when Magritte completed “This is a Piece of Cheese” in his little kitchen in Belgium, a Korean poet in his 20s published his first poetry collection entitled “Deer.” Born and raised in Korea’s modernization period, the poet Baek Seok attended Osan School and then studied English Literature at Aoyama Gakuin University in Japan. An elite and one of the stylish, well-educated group of young men called “modern boys,” he worked as an editor for the magazine “Women,” published by the Chosun Ilbo newspaper.
Given his background, it was quite unexpected for the man who “swaggered across the Gwanghwamun Crossroads, flaunting his light green double-breasted jacket, his dark curly hair flowing in the wind like Arctic ocean waves” to celebrate and write poems about Korean tradition, particularly the folk culture of his hometown Jeongju (aka Chongju) in North Pyongan Province. While the critic Im Hwa criticized his poetry for its regionalism, another critic Kim Ki-rim acclaimed his work for showing the “guileless face of our native land.”

If an artist describes a certain place to be either overly gloomy and drab, or conspicuously bright, we should not take it at face value. In many cases, artists are self-contradictory people with a talent for amplifying or obscuring emotions. Even supposed conflicts or confrontations might not have existed at all.

A Kitchen Where the Soup is Bubbling
Baek Seok’s poetry is rustic in that it is rooted in a childhood spent in Jeongju, but is clearly different from hackneyed backwoods literature. The poet kept a certain distance from his childhood experiences to let his protagonists speak about them through restrained narratives. His poetry is characterized by rich language based on provincial customs saturated with shamanic beliefs, extreme imagism like that of the Flemish miniatures, and brilliant use of dialect.
To the poet, food was one thing richly evocative of his hometown — 46 different dishes are mentioned throughout 33 poems in his anthology “Deer.” The names of the local dishes are unfamiliar even to most Koreans. The kitchen, as the source of various dishes, also makes a frequent appearance in his poems, and the pots in the kitchen always have something bubbling in them.
“We would sleep until morning when the fragrant smell of muijinggeguk wafted through the side door and the paper windows, the kitchen bustling with boisterous sisters-in-law.” (from “The Family in the Fox Haunted Village”)
“On the eve of a big holiday, the kitchen was fresh and bright under the lamplight, the lid of an iron pot rattling up and down, with savory beef bone soup simmering in it.” (from “A Night of the Old Days”)
“The old, widowed father-in-law is making seaweed soup in the dim kitchen. / The soup for the new mother is also simmering in another solitary house across the village.” (from “The Tranquil Frontier”)
In Korea, back in the old days, the kitchen was usually located beside the main room in the women’s quarters. A clay stove was built against the wall, with big and small iron pots placed on top. Wood was burned in the furnace underneath the stove to cook food and heat the adjacent rooms by sending hot air through the flues under the floor and out through the chimney. When something was boiling in the pots on the stove, it meant warm rooms and steaming hot food, representing the domestic bliss of a properly functioning family. Muijinggeguk, the smell of which would have made the poet’s mouth water on a cold winter morning, is a dish native to North Pyongan Province. A kind of broth cooked with sliced radish and salt-fermented shrimp, it has both the clean taste of radish and the savory flavor of shrimp.
Like a true “modern boy,” Baek Seok would strut along the streets of 20th-century Gyeongseong (Seoul) under Japanese occupation, but his taste, sense of smell and emotions belonged to the traditions of a northern village of 19th-century Korea, where “a child shaman dances on the blade of a straw cutter.” Probably, his misfortune came from somewhere between modernity and tradition, between the loss of the nation and colonialism. As the poet grew older, going through five arranged marriages, frequently changing jobs and living as a wanderer, his poetry gradually filled up with regrets and loneliness instead of the warm memories of his hometown.

Baek Seok’s poems often describe kitchen scenes where fragrant soup is always bubbling on the stove. When something was boiling in the kitchen, it meant hot food and warm rooms.

Roy F. Foster notes in his biography of W. B. Yeats that Napoleon’s famous claim “To understand a man, you need to understand the world when he was 20 years old” fits Yeats perfectly. As a poet majoring in English literature, Baek Seok must have known about the Irish poet’s identity crisis in childhood and his inclination to the myths and legends of his homeland. However, Baek Seok failed where Yeats succeeded — finding his own voice in the midst of political and social turmoil in his fatherland. In the end, when the nation was divided after the Second World War and he was forced to choose between North and South, he went back to his hometown in Jeongju, and his highly individual literary attempts ended there. Later, the history of Korean literature had to describe Baek Seok in his later years as “a poet of lamentation and resignation,” who failed to push further with his exploration of the untouched imaginary world of Koreans.
The former house of the poet Seo Jeong-ju stands in Sadang-dong, Seoul, inscribed on the Seoul Future Heritage List. The poet spent the last 30 years of his life in this house with his wife. His pen name Midang means “an incomplete house” and, by extension, “a person still in the making.” Contrary to this self-effacing name, many Koreans consider Seo as the greatest poet of modern Korean literature.

A Buddhist monk is waiting for the soup to boil in the kitchen of Tongdo Temple in Yangsan, South Gyeongsang Province. The author of this article once lived in Sangwon Temple on Mt. Odae in Gangwon Province, cooking food and washing dishes for the people living and working there.

An Empty Kitchen
In the house, a receipt for the Community Security Fee dated 1978 can be found in a corner of the kitchen. Hanging on the wall is a framed photo of the poet and his wife sitting side by side on the garden’s stonewall, dressed in traditional summer jackets made with white ramie, squinting under the glaring sun. Providing a glimpse of the poet’s wife, Bang Ok-suk, is a newspaper article written in her youth carrying her own recipe for crab marinated in soy sauce: “It is made with freshwater crabs caught in rice paddies or in brooks. When chilly wind blows and the rice grows ripe, the crabs begin to fill up and grow dark innards. That is when you can make delicious crab marinated in soy sauce.”
Seo wrote hundreds of poems throughout his life, but none of them expresses his thoughts on the kitchen. It is a bit extraordinary for a poet who observed “The three thousand bowls of clear water / that my wife placed on the crock terrace every day at dawn / and prayed that I won’t love another woman,” and wondered “Will she fill an empty bowl with my breath on the day I go up to heaven ahead of her?” (from “My Wife”)
However, the disappointment is relieved by the poem titled “Poetics”:
“The woman diver of Jeju Island, who makes a living by picking abalones from the seabed, / leaves the best ones underwater / saving them for the day her loved one comes. / So, leave the best abalones of poetry just there. / For how would you bear the emptiness of the heart depleted of poetry? / Gazing at the sea, yearning to reach it, that is what a poet does.”
No one greets you in the house now. In the kitchen on the first floor, a single can of beer sits on the table. After his wife died, the 85-year-old poet refused to take any food. In the three months before he died, he only drank beer, sitting alone at the kitchen table. It was my own wife who told me this story. It seems she knew how the poet felt.

A Kitchen of Embarrassing Memories
In 20th-century Korea, where patriarchal tradition still affected every household, men rarely talked about their feelings for the kitchen. Still, most men must have some memories associated with it. In my childhood, I used to stand at the kitchen door surveying the dim, dirt-floored interior whenever I was bored or hungry. My eyes always fell on the cupboard, the only piece of furniture with its contents hidden from view. Opening it, I would be hit by a mixture of the smell of sesame oil and the pungent, salty, or fishy smells coming from the ring marks left by bottles and jars of various unknown liquids. I would look cautiously around before taking a spoonful of honey from the jar and putting it in my mouth, or stealing some change from my mother’s wallet stashed away in the corner of the cupboard.
In my early teens, the kitchen sometimes became a place for chores. One day, when I was tending the fire squatting in front of the clay stove, the girl who sat next to me at school suddenly appeared at our kitchen door and stared at me, leaning against the doorpost. For some unknown reason, she had apparently befriended my younger sister. I was so shy that I couldn’t raise my head to look at her, so I just sat still on the floor inhaling the smoke from the furnace. I couldn’t even thank her for the green wild pear that she had given me at lunchtime.
When I grew older, I used to sit on the floor of the dark, damp kitchen, burning firewood and occasionally fumbling to write down the lyrics of my favorite songs from the radio. Besides, when I went to Sangwon Temple on Mt. Odae to become a Buddhist monk in the winter of my 20th year of life, it was on the narrow veranda connected to the kitchen where I gobbled up the cold noodles that an old lady devotee made for me. For a while, I stayed there in the temple’s detached cottage, where monks and woodcutters lived. I worked in the kitchen making fire, cooking soup for the people living and working there, and washing the dishes. In between chores, I would read Kim Soo-young’s poems instead of Buddhist scriptures.
“With two rooms, one living room, a neat kitchen, and my poor wife under my care, / how embarrassing it is to live like others if only in appearance!” (from “A Sentinel of the Clouds”)
Candid, upstanding and sensitive, Kim Soo-young may be the most rigorous poet in the history of Korean literature, who put his life and himself under the poetic microscope, recording them with the most honest words. This was the world that I encountered when I was in my early twenties.

Lee Chang-guy Poet and Literary Critic
Ahn Hong-beom, Ha Ji-kwon Photographers
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