The Food of Life

by  Logan


Korea has a wide variety of foods. Among Korean foods however, the one that can be said to have the most cultural meaning would be the food called soojaebee. The food can be described as a hot soup with water, rounded pieces of flour, throw in a bit of salt, and there you have it, soojaebee. Does it sound rather unappetizing? But, to Koreans, it will forever be one of the most delicious foods.

The reason Koreans love this strange food, called soojaebee, is that this was the only food most people could afford during the times of Japanese colonization. Those were very tough times for Koreans, and this is where historical particularism of Boasian Anthropology comes into play. Soojaebee, if it can even be called food, was the only thing people could call food. Where they had nothing else, they had water and flour. The only thing the people could make was this thing called soojaebee. During this bitter time in Korean history, this was the food that allowed survival, the thing that brought life. So then, how can the people ever forget the taste of the thing that brought them life? The taste could be nothing but delicious. The history behind this food makes it so that the people can never abandon this food because of the way it served them during their darkest times.

Soojaebee has become somewhat of a symbol in Korean culture. From our great-grandfathers to the present generation of college students, this food holds still a significant meaning. Koreans usually eat this food during the winter and sometimes just any time of year. But especially during the Korean New Year or Korean Independence Day, people will eat this food. Some of the elderly folk will eat it even today and remember the tough times they had experienced during Japanese colonial times. That’s when the stories of olden days and the great heroes who shaped modern Korea will be told to the younger generation. Then the children also learn the pains of the people. So soojaebee holds a symbolic meaning in the culture of the older generation of Koreans. The younger generation may not know the history that soojaebee holds, but nevertheless, its meaning is there. In present day Korea, the food brings families together during the making process. Because of its simplicity, even children can help to prepare the food, and whenever the food is eaten, it warms families together. It warms people bellies as well.

This very simple and rather unappealing food may seem strange to others. But to the Korean people, it will always hold a great meaning. It is the food that allowed them to survive another day. The food that provided their bodies a means to be nourished. It is the thing that brought life to the people.


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20 Responses to The Food of Life

  1. Anna Wood says:

    I find the lens of historical paticularism to ethnic foods very interesting. It is likely that the significance at a specific point in history could be one reason for usually unappetizing foods to stick around. I’m sure the Korean culture had many factors that kept Soojabee around, and the historical significance was simply preserved with the soup. Similarly, this blog post reminded me of the topic of hard tack. These rock hard pieces of bread were of very practical use in expansionist times, when citizens were moving out into the west and needed compact sources of nourishment that were relatively easy to make and wouldn’t go bad for years. Just the same as the Koreans, the US Frontiermen were kept alive by a somewhat unappetizing food. However, we rarely see hard tack in the US today. I wonder what differences between the two foods, or the two cultures resulted in such different outcomes.

  2. Logan, your essay pointed out something about food and culture that had not occurred to me before. I think it is very interesting that this food came to prominence because of necessity. I like how you put this under the umbrella of historical particularism because this came to be out of necessity. It’s pretty cool how it is now a major food for Korea, even though people may not necessarily need to eat it now. It came to prominence because it was cheap to make. But once people did not need to make cheap food anymore, soojaebee did not just fall off the map. People still continued to eat it, which leaves me wondering. Why would they continue to eat it when they didn’t have to. Was it because they actually liked the food? Was it because it was so important to them culturally that they continued to eat it out of ritual or tradition?

  3. Andrew Sullivan says:

    I like knowing that certain occasions call for certain foods throughout various cultures. Soojaebee being eaten during Korean New Year or Korean Independence Day would be akin to Americans having burgers on July 4 or Turkey for Thanksgiving. I would like to know what various occasional foods in other countries call are. I’m guessing that coastal nations might have some seafood dish or more likely it would be a traditional and historical dish like soojaebee is to Korea.

  4. Kelly Curtis says:

    This essay reminds me of the Lobster essay of the last round. It’s interesting how a food can change from being seen as a “poor man’s dinner” or literally just a few of the most abundant ingredients in a time of scarcity, to a significant part of a culture and a way of people defining themselves. This makes me wonder about our next generations, and what they will think of our food and food habits. I could see children in a classroom in 2230 C.E. learning about the significance of fast food to the average 2014 living person. We never think about how our actions, words and writings will be interpreted in the future. I’m sure the hungry Koreans put no thought into the future of the dish, but were trying to live to just see tomorrow.

  5. Mary Dobberstein says:

    I really enjoyed reading your paragraph that tied soojaebee to historical particularism. It’s interesting how things that help people through hard times stick with them and become part of their culture! I wonder if it will be forgotten over time or if it will stick with them forever.

    • daca4780 says:

      It is really interesting how hardship creates special emotions that become tied to that particular time. It’d be interesting to examine from US history like the Great Deperession or the Vietnam War to see if they’re still present today. Really amazing way for the Korean people to remember their history and resilience.

  6. Ian McClain says:

    Your essay made me think about how food is often more than just a basic necessity that meets our nutritional needs. It serves so much more for specific cultures and on an individual level. I have never heard of Sojaebee before, but this definitely seems like something that is more significant to the Korean people than just a food product. It sounds like tradition has really impacted the appeal of this food as it represented a time of significant hardship but can now be celebrated. From a Marxist anthropological perspective, I would be interested to find out if certain classes of Koreans enjoy Sojaebee more than others. Do Koreans that are considered upper class separate themselves from this food that apparently was associated with the lower class at one point in time? Is this food enjoyed by most Koreans regardless of socioeconomic status?

  7. Helen says:

    This essay makes me curious about why certain cultures have certain traditional foods. For example, if Soojaebee is prevalent in Japan because of it’s historical significance, what significance to hot dogs and hamburgers have in America? It also makes me wonder if potatoes have this same effect in Ireland. It is interesting to look at the emergence of traditional foods through histrorical particularism, however I think you could also look at it through Symbolic Anthropology since you said it has become somewhat of a symbol in Japanese society. If Soojaebee is a cultural symbol, it can be interpreted to help us Understand Japanese culture more accurately.

  8. Mariah Stoneman says:

    This is pretty interesting as to why Soojabee is so important to Koreans. I understand it brought them life and is still delicious in their eyes, however, I can’t help to think that there is an obligation in eating Soojabee? Is it truly appetizing or do they eat it because of their history/important contributions to health and life? I could see this culture being very grateful and therefore never turning down some Soojabee.

  9. Nayantara Nelson says:

    I like how your article lays out this timeline of how the necessity of Soojaebee changes to the preference for and how the preference for this dish is based on it’s “life giving,” symbolism. It would be interesting to understand how Koreans, in the time of Japanese colonization, felt about this food, if they found it as appetizing as Koreans to today. With this understanding I believe it would shed light on contemporary obligation vs. preference, separated but related to your argument on necessity vs. preference.

  10. Chris Manning says:

    I always enjoy reading about the little details in a society, especially things like this that bring a country together in ways through unified hardships. I am curious whether this is specific to north korea, south korea, or both? in context of this essay its interesting to think back at all of our similar traditions as americans and where they have come from.

  11. Laura Graham says:

    My friend told me once he was talking to a girl who was Native American and he brought up how much he loved fry bread. She was quick to tell him that while that was very nice of him, fry bread wasn’t really an ok topic to bring up for many Native Americans. She explained the reason fry bread is a food associated with Native Americans is because when they were pushed onto the reservations, the only food, if you can really call it that, was flour, lard and sugar. The reason they made fry bread is because thats all they could make.

    Your blog reminds me of that. Its interesting that the Koreans chose to see the only food they had in a positive light and as a way of remembering the struggle they had to endure. In saying that by no means am I criticizing the Native Americans, at least in this girl’s tribe, for viewing fry bread in a negative light.

  12. Maddie Wisell says:

    It was interesting to learn about this, and to see how particular foods mean something to people. I like how you focused on the symbolism of soojabee; how it shows how the older generation struggled through tough times, and eventually overcame it. It’s also nice to see how such a simple food can hold so much meaning to a people because of the history behind it. It would be interesting to see what an evolutionary anthropologist would say about this.

  13. Kayla McClelland says:

    I really found this essay interesting and loved the example of food used. Soojaebee is a great reminder how some of the most simple of things can sometimes be the most creative and valued traditions. It is reassuring to know that humanity has the strength to survive and adapt to their conditions even if they are not what people hope for. I thought the use of historical particularism and symbolism was necessary in analyzing food such as soojaebee. Since colonization played such a large role in the motivation to create and sustain soojaebee, if post-structuralism could be used to investigate the phenomenon at all? I wonder what cultural foods or traditions appeared in Japan that were contemporaneous or in response to traditions appearing in Korean communities?

  14. Wow. I loved this essay. It’s interesting to me to think about how a food like that can mean so much to a people, and still be loved and enjoyed. I know personally for me, after a year of surviving on ramen and other instant microwave meals I never want to touch them again. So it’s interesting how different cultures and different groups of people react to living off of one particular food item. I love how soojaebee has become a symbol and is really culturally bound. Great job!

  15. Charlie Travis says:

    This is really awesome, I’ve never really thought about food and its relationship to history in this way before. When reading your paper, I also thought of the significance the potato may have for the Irish as it has a clear place in Irish history as well. I think it is beautiful that a culture will hold onto a food that doesn’t taste very good just because of its significant place in the history of the people, such as soojaebee. I wonder how particularism to the culture impacts how they remember an important food, for example maybe another culture may see something like soojaebee as a symbol of a bad historical period and something to be forgotten in comparison to remembering foods.

  16. Brian Clark says:

    Its interesting in this essay that the entire country of Korea has a shared cultural staple in soojaebee. The entire country can have a shared culture in Korea, but then in the US can have completely different cultural items just between cities within the same state.

  17. Maddie Ohaus says:

    This essay was very interesting and touched on something I never really thing about, that our food is more than just what we eat when were hungry. Each culture has their own food that connect to history and this was a cool view of that. During the civil war in the south one of the most common, easiest and cheapest foods to eat and make was cornbread. I’m from the south and we have cornbread all the time when theres much better and nice food to be eaten. We have cornbread at christmas, thanksgiving and most big holidays. After reading this essay it makes me think about the historical context of that particular food and why it is so popular in the south.

  18. Charlotte Thompson says:

    I love looking at the history of certain foods.It is really interesting to look at cultures around the world and notice that often times staples foods such as Soobajee for the Koreans, Injera for the ethiopians or bread for the french have actually gained their place in these cultures by being sustainance in times of hardship.I like how you used the idea tha people remember the foods that brought them life. Fascinating!

  19. Calder Justice says:

    Very interesting essay when considering all the historical baggage surrounding this seemingly simply dish. The history of this food sounds capable of illuminating on the nature of Japanese occupation, Korean identity, their forms of resistance to said occupation, and how this event has been reconciled in the consciousness of the culture. Indeed you touched on nearly all of these possibilities and it would be a fascinating lens to use when understanding modern Korean culture. Equally useful is the concept. Look at other lands that have been occupied, the foods they ate during that time, and how this memory of a difficult time is translated through food.

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