Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Beliefs about Red Bean Soup (팥죽)

Red bean soup, in Korea known as 팥죽, originated in China, and it was the custom there to make red beans for casting out demons and performing other supersititous acts. Korea has similar beliefs about negating bad fortune with the fearful red colored beans as both cultures view the color "red" as a symbol of positive yang energy for warding off negative energy forces. Exactly when red beans or red bean soup was introduced to Korea is unknown. We do know, however, that the earliest records concerning red bean soup in Korea are recorded in ancient books noting that the beans were to be eaten on the winter solstice (동지). And over time other records show that red bean soup was not eaten only during the winter solstice but were often eaten throughout the winter and were readily available in the inns (주막) of the past. This makes a lot of sense for the agrarian culture as grain was expensive and often in short supply in the long winter months of no food production. Beans, therefore, were the food of the peasants but which still provided energy. The beans could be and were often a meal by themselves.

Korea likely borrowed their superstitious beliefs about red beans and red bean soup from the Chinese as there was much cultural sharing between the countries. However, there might be variation in the superstitious beliefs, so the following beliefs are those which Korea held until quite recently (some beliefs are still marginally held). That said, red beans and red bean soup are now ritual foods that people recognize at certain events and/or rites of passage, but the reason for serving those foods is often lost to the younger participants in this scientific, educated and non-superstitous age.

Red Bean Superstitions in Korea

(1) In order to prevent a disaster or to avoid ghosts within a home, red beans (the color itself is supposed to be frightening) are scattered in front of the main entrance of a house or in a crock (장독대) before making the red bean soup itself. The cooking and eating of the beans themselves is a ritual for preventing bad luck and the ever-present epidemic diseases.
(2) When moving to or building a house, red bean soup is shared with the new neighbors as the belief is held that demons around the house will be cast away (and I guess maybe the neighbors don't want the demons either and thus the communal demon eviction).
(3) When someone gets ill, red bean soup is made and spilled in the street. By doing so, the red color of the soup is thought to drive away the disease.
(4) When bereaved, neighbors make red bean soup and give to the bereaved neighbors. This practice is a communal way of praying for the souls of the departed and wish them well. (Nobody wants an unhappy or unappeased ghost around!)
(5) Farmers eat red bean soup and the act of farmers eating red bean soup particularly on Dongjinal (winter solstice) is a wish for a prosperous rich year with abundant harvest. Winter solstice is a day of the year which is founded on the belief of balancing the yin and yang harmony and balance of the universe, and farmers need to the harmonious balance to ensure good production of their crops.

Red Bean Soup in Japan and China

Much cultural sharing has occurred in the history of the far northeastern Asian countries: China, Korea and Japan. China was the big brother to Korea and culture was diffused onward to the little brother country. Often times from Korea the culture was further diffused to the islands of Nippon (Japan). And within these three countries, red bean soup exists; however, of course the basic soup recipe has been borrowed into and adapted to harmonize with the cultural tastes of each country.

China's present red bean soup is called 紅豆沙 (hǒng dòu shā). The color red is a lively color evoking luck and happiness, and therefore, red bean soup is eaten at special celebrations like Chinese New Year, weddings, birthdays, among many others. In and unique to China, red bean soup is a sweet dessert especially served hot in winter (as a yang food it is warming), but it's also served cold in summer frequently as the main dessert following a meal. Leftover soup can also be frozen on a stick to make a frozen red bean popsickle.

In Japan the red bean soup is called shiruko (汁粉) and has mochi in it. The bean paste itself is much sweeter than that in Korea and the bowl of sweet soup may accompany a sour or salty dish as a complement to complete the meal.

This compilation is a reorganization of Jang Moon Young's phenomenal presentation on the origin, superstitions and various forms of red bean soup around Asian countries. Some additional information was taken from Wikipedia to add more clarity to the materials given, but the interesting structure was Moon Young's. :)

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