Food Culture and Tradition

Food, People and Culture Resources

Domestic Life in Korea


There are sharp contrasts between the domestic life of Koreans in farming villages and those who live and work in cities. The majority of Koreans live in farming villages, for even fishermen in seashore communities pursue some form of agriculture. The villages are mostly democratic, each tending to be an almost independent social unit.

Many urban homes as well as almost all of those in the countryside follow traditional styles and decor. As the extended family grows, rooms and wings are added to the basic L-shape, U-shape, or hollow square homes built of earth, clay wattle, brick, or concrete blocks. Old straw-thatched roofs are giving way to tiles, metal or plastic styles, but the heating system remains “age-old.” Under baked clay floors which are neatly covered with glazed paper, stone flues carry heat from either the kitchen or outside fire pits. Thus there is heat for cooking, hot water, and warmth for the occupants of the house as they sit on mats or sleep on quilted mattresses at night.

In rural homes as well as in many urban homes, the kitchen is the special domain of the woman. Pine branches may be used for fuel in the iron, stone, or clay fire pits. Traditionally, three large globular iron pots of varying size are sunk into pits in the stove. The largest of these pots may be used for heating laundry water or cooking grass as food for oxen; the smaller pots are used for rice and other foods. An inverted dome of the iron pot is used as a griddle. Open shelves as well as at least one food cabinet are used for general storage, while foods needing storage in a cool place may be kept in the ground or in huge stone jars. Trays for dining, baskets and brooms add to the decor of the kitchen together with the family’s brass ladles hanging on the wall.

A special area of the traditional rural home is the outer porch or patio area, made with a floor of smoothed clay and often sheltered with a roof. This area is called the matang. Shoes are placed here before entering the home, but more important, it is here that old and young congregate to do odd jobs, talk, and watch the children. It is said that “he who does not know the matang will never understand Korea.” In fact, for the men, the matang is the summer social area, while women prefer the kitchen or the tiny walled garden accessible from the kitchen entrance.

While sliding rice-paper panels within the homes are reminiscent of Japanese design, Chinese influences are stronger. Borrowed from the Chinese is the village arrangement of homes clustered together around the courtyard. So too are the small market gardens near each home, the pine tree and bamboo groves surrounding the villages, and even the typical walls surrounding the towns.

Upper-class Koreans living in the larger cities live in towering modern apartment buildings or western-style homes, many with modern appliances such as refrigerators, gas stoves, and piped-in hot water.

Gradual changes are occurring in family life. Father and son still form the primary family relationship, but the large extended family living in one home unit is gradually giving way to the nuclear family consisting only of father, mother, and children.

Respect for elders and ancestor worship are almost as deeply inculcated in the Korean as fundamental Confucian values. Among these is the belief that “a good life depends on knowledge and observance of proper behavior between one individual and another.” This is outlined in the five Confucian categories: parent and child (especially father and son), king and minister, husband and wife, elder and younger brother, and between friends.

These fundamental traditions persist even among Koreans who profess the Christian faith. First Chinese, then Japanese, and more recently Russian and American cultures, religions, and lifestyles have all been superimposed on traditional Korean ways, but they do not replace them.

Following this age-old pattern it is not difficult to understand that even if the modern-day Korean woman works outside her home, the likelihood is strong that within the family she is the “inside master” while her husband is the “outside master.” That is, while the Korean family may live in a modern multi-story apartment building and enjoy modern conveniences, a scratch on the surface will reveal ancient codes and beliefs.

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