Barley Rice and Guksu

Sweet barley-rice heaped in bamboo baskets,
Mallow soup dripping off the spoon,
Young folk and old bustling round the table,
Exclaiming “How tasty it all is!”

So wrote Kang Heemaeng, a Korean poet of the fifteenth century. It is not advisable to read a great deal of old Korean poetry on an empty stomach: you will quickly notice, alongside an impressively developed pastoral aesthetic, a continual preoccupation with food. The tables of the Chosun Dynasty - as Korea was known between 1392 and 1897 – come alive on the pages of its poetry. The food of this era is not quite what you would find in most Korean restaurants today – dishes rich with meat, seafood and the distinctive pickled spicy tang of kimchi. Barley has recently gained popularity as a health food in Korea, but a generation or two ago people thought barley a cheaper alternative to rice. Mallow meanwhile – much like the round pumpkin-like courgettes and oversize radishes that are still popular in Korean soups – is a vegetable used to make a soup more substantial and filling, especially when meat might still be a luxury. This is the older, blander fare of a poor, but resourceful country cut off from the rest of the world, not as yet using the spices, brought by traders in later centuries, that figure so much in its contemporary cooking, instead drawing healthy, wholesome food from an unforgiving landscape.
Not that you hear Kang Heemaeng complaining, nor the figures in his poetry. “Ah masshidda”–ah, how tasty, is a phrase that resounds down the centuries, even though the cuisine has changed with the times. Another thing that has carried down from the past is a very Korean way of dealing with hot weather. During this summer’s scorching and rain-soaked heat wave, my family and I drove more than once to Namhansanseong, a fortress perched on a series of hills to the south of Seoul, and sheltered in the forest at the foot of the hills, where monsoon rain had swelled the rocky brooks that filter down from the heights – and where it seems a good five or ten degrees cooler than the city. We would find a nice spot to play in the gushing stream, which, as the day wore on began to fill with young children and their families. Many of the very shadiest spots upstream, however, had been long claimed by older visitors, who sat on their mats by the stream – or sometimes on the rocks in the stream, eating, drinking, listening to the radio and resting. I saw one old chap reading a book of poetry. I recognized the scene from this poem, by the 16th-century poet Lee Sanhae:
An old man of the country lays his place by the stream,
Barley rice and sour rice wine eases the traveller’s sorrows.
To get drunk a little, as the sun sets behind the mountains.
Rain falling on the lotus pond heralds the start of autumn.
The influence of classical Chinese poetry is very strong in this poem, not least in that last image of the rain falling on lotus ponds, but there is a lot in these lines that is specific to Korea and its culture. Not least of these is the rice wine that he drinks as he reposes – the very same makgeolli that I saw old geezers quaffing in the mountain stream this summer. This is not to be confused, by the way, with the clear, vodka-like and (for me at least) headache-inducing soju that is nowadays Korea’s most popular alcoholic drink. Rather it is an opaque, very slightly fizzy drink, about the same strength as beer, with a powdery residue at the bottom of the bottle, which some people leave, and others like to shake in. It is best drunk out of bowls rather than glasses – I am sure the 'country man' in the poem wouldn’t have owned any glasses anyway. My wife explained to me that the sour makgeolli of the first half of the second line resonates emotionally with the sorrows of the end of the line; similarly, the slight drunkenness of the beginning of the next line matches the feeling of the sunset. The overall feeling of the poem is the sense of a mellow, if not untroubled, old age sharpened by the tang of approaching death. Enjoy that barley rice while you can – and makgeolli, obviously.
Somehow, no other nation’s poetry that I can think of talks quite so much about food. Even when not writing about the food itself, it can find its way into the poem’s imagery. This final poem brings us to the very end of the Chosun era, and indeed to the cusp of the modern age. There is a definite streak of modernity along these lines of the late Chosun poet Hwang Hyun, in its understated bleakness and the unexpectedly strange metaphor at the end:
A white egret passes in a black density of rain.
In the shadow of the willow I wake sharply from a doze:
By our shack in the valley my grandson says, lunch is served
– A thousand strands of fresh guksu over cracked stones in the stream.
There are few words in the English language less poetic than “noodles”, so I have used the Korean here – guksu are thin white noodles served in soup, or sometimes cold. To appreciate the last image, you need to picture guksu the way it is usually served, in a ball scooped from the pot and onto the plate, somewhat resembling a ball of wool. Here, the fast water bubbling up over the rocks in a river resembles guksu. The atmosphere of this poem is more unsettled and uncertain compared to the earlier poems. At the time it was written, Korea was embarking upon one of the darkest phases in its history, and perhaps the poem reflects this. Still, I find it a heartening poem overall – even in the most difficult of times, we can still hope to find solace in the old comforts of hearth and home, family, nature and – yes – food.

*These Korean poems are my own translations, based on Lee Jong Mok’s Hangul versions of the original Chinese character poems. Hangul is the phonetic script used to render Korean since about the 17th century, but most poets up until the twentieth century still wrote in Chinese characters. All the poems can be found in Lee Jong Mok’s (Korean language) book, Hanshi Majung, TaeHakSa Press, Seoul 2012