Saturday, November 12, 2011

Yeot Culture

Yeot is a thick Korean-style syrup - much like corn syrup but less sweet - or in its hard form like a taffy. It is made from a variety of ingredients ... there's rice yeot, daikon (radish) yeot, sweet potato yeot, corn yeot, pumpkin yeot, barley yeot, trichosanthes kirilowii (한을 애기 엿, a Korean medicine) yeot, medicine (양열) yeot, and pheasant yeot which is traditional in Cheju Island. The word "엿" originates from "yit-da" and "yi-oe-ji-da", meaning "connect" and "become connected" respectively, and the uses of yeot can be traced back through the Joseon Dynasty, the Goryeo Dynasty, back to the period of the three states.

Making Yeot Taffy

The making of yeot can be simplified into 8 steps. Sorry, measurements not included in this recipe.
Step 1: Add malt powder to water.
Step 2: After sitting for some time, strain the malt lumps out of the water.
Step 3: Mix cooked white rice in with the strained malt water.
Step 4: Ferment the mixture and strain out the rice.
Step 5: Boil the malt-rice water down until the color becomes a tawny brown.
Step 6: Add ingredients like pine nuts or peanuts and mix together. However, most eye-appealing if nuts on crusted on the outside of the yeot taffy.
Step 7: Spread the malt mixture on a greased tray and allow to cool.
Step 8: Before the mixture hardens, cut into desired shapes.

Yeot Culture Extends Beyond Just Food

My students (Hwang Kyoung Hui and Lee Se Jun) were able to identify as many as 5 cultural meanings of yeot beyond just food - a traditional meaning, a modern-day meaning, and three kinds of insults or negative slang all related to yeot taffy.

The traditional meaning goes back perhaps many centuries and was for wishing good fortune but also having a negative twist. In traditional Confucian times when the woman went to her parents-in-law as a new bride, to her wedding ceremony she would bring yeot which symbolized a stickiness and thus an indirect wish for amicable relations between herself and her mother-in-law. The stickiness of yeot was a suggestion of the feeling of sweetness and stickiness in one's mouth, thus preventing one to talk, and in the bride's case, her inability to talk back to her mother-in-law.

A modern usage of yeot has to do with the homophone 붇다 which means both 'to stick' (the original meaning) and 'to pass', as in 'pass an exam'. Thus, people in modern times give yeot to test-takers as a wish for them to pass the exam, as in "시험에 붇었다 (get permission for the exam) as opposed to "시헙에 떨어지다/떨어짔다" (fail the exam).

Yeot also has slang meanings - three are presented here. The first is related to the Namsadangpae or traveling entertainers, who used vulgar words in their traveling acts targeted to the common people. Somehow through the vulgarity of the traveling entertainers acts yeot came also to be a foul slang for the female's sexual organ.

Another coinage of yeot originated in 1964 during a middle school entrance exam. One of the multiple choice questions asked which kind of plant would make yeot. However, there were two possible answers, the one determined to be correct by the test-makers and the less common answer of "radish juice" (무엿). The students who chose 'radish juice' were marked incorrect causing parents to demonstrate and creating a scandal concerning the competitive exam. Exam-taking periods are taken very seriously in Korea and even today, students born decades after the scandal know the details and are quick to point back to the controversial "무엿과동" (Radish Juice Affair) if they feel a test is unfair.

A final usage of yeot is based on near homophonic sounds of 'yeom' (corpse cleaning and dressing process) and 'yeot'. Perhaps because yeot has been used to keep dead people's mouths closed after death (because of the stickiness), the near homophonic sound of 'yeom' gets articulated into the insult 'yeot' when someone shouts an insult at another. The insult suggests the person died and went to hell.

Clearly yeot is not limited to concepts of just food, as my students Hwang Kyung Hui and Lee Se Jun's presentation demonstrated. The assignment given was to identify an aspect of food in relation to culture in any way, and of the many presentations, this particular one showed most clearly showed that food does not serve the function of feeding one's self for nutrition only, but rather is intimately tied to the culture from which it originated through language, history and belief systems. A very well organized presentation!

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