Friday, December 2, 2011

Differences of Tang in the Far East

As many things in the Far East have originated in China, it is believed that what is known as tang today also did originate on the northeast Asian mainland in what is now China and Mongolia. Tang does not translate directly into English but can be called soup although it is usually more like a hearty stew. The 'soup' of China originated as a simple bowl of food cooked with a few ingredients, thus, 湯 (tang). Varieties existed and they were distinguished as 臛(hak), a soup with only meat, and 羹(gaeng), a soup with only vegies. And then the Mongols had their soup called шөл (schule), with the main ingredient being meat, either that of goat or sheep.

Three cultural recipes for tang

Chinese tang in the present day has many ingredients. Tang in China is also a medicine, and Korea has borrowed both tang as soup and tang as Korean medicine.

In Korea, tang (the soup) is differentiated by its water content. For a thin soup with 70% or more water the soup is referred to as 국 (gook), with between 50-70% water a soup in Korea is typically called 찌개 (jjigae), and with less than 50% water the soup-stew is called 전골 (jeongol). There are more than 200 kinds of tang in Korea and with a wide range of meats, vegies and spices (red peppers and garlic are almost always guaranteed).

Japanese tang has a light and bland taste compared to that of Korea's. The broth base is from seafood, various kelps and bonito, as culturally Japanese did not eat red meats. That of course is changing but Japan, as an island country, is still very culturally dependent on the sea for providing much of the food and many seasonings.

Tang embued with cultural meaning

Though tang exists in the three Far North-eastern cultures, eating tang reveals hidden cultural meanings. For Korea, people eat tang together in order to grow closer. This was more true two decades ago when two people shared the same bowl, but even nowadays with people each eating from their own soup bowl, the very act of eating the same kind of food is bonding. In Japan, however, eating tang together is a subtle way of saying that the people are already close. This might be due to the fact that Japanese do not eat out as much as Koreans, who might eat every meal out in this fast modern age. In China, here doesn't seem to be a special meaning attached to the eating of tang together.

As for how tang is served, in Korea it is the main dish of the meal served with a bowl of rice while in Japan it is one of the many light dishes served with a bowl of rice. China considers tang a kind of sub-food, just an accompaniment to a meal to be eaten last. Koreans very often tip their rice bowl into the tang and eat them mixed together, and for the westerner to do so brings smiles to Koreans faces, who might joyfully say, "Ah, you eat your tang like a Korean." Even if they don't tip the rice into the bowl, scooping a spoon of rice and dipping it in the tang is common. For the Japanese, however, tang and rice are eaten separately, spoon by spoon; and yet, a couple eating together would eat the tang and rice together to show that they are a couple. Wow, table manners telling tales on people beknownst or unbeknownst to them!

Tang : 감자탕 (pork bone soup)

Guk : 재첩국 (small shellfish soup)

Jjigae : 두부찌개 (Korean tofu stew)

Jeongol : 해물전골 (seafood jeongol)

This presentation by my students Kim Seong Hoon and Kim Jeong Seop was concluded with pictures of them eating some noodle tang and slurping the noodles happily! And by the way, slurping noodles is only now being considered bad manners (as influenced by western culture that dislikes noisily eating food). Traditionally in Korea, to slurp noodles was to show deep appreciation for the food and was an indirect compliment to the cook.

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