Tag Archives: korea

Korean Pajeon Sauce

Information about the Informant

My informant is from a Vietnamese family. She’s currently an undergraduate student at Indiana University Bloomington. In her spare time, she loves to knit and cook, primarily baked goods, but also some “Asian” recipes that she learned from her family. This is a recipe for a Korean sauce for “pajeons,” which is a type of pancake-like dish with green onions as a primary ingredient (for the pancakes, not the sauce).


“To make the sauce for the Korean Pa jeon, I do–let’s estimate it to 3 tablespoons of low-sodium soy sauce, 1 tablespoon of Worchestershire sauce, 1 teaspoon of chili garlic sauce, roasted sesame seeds, and 1 tablespoon of the–just the lemon ponzu sauce.”

Collector: “And you just mix it all together?”

“Yeah. And I think that’s it.”


One of the things my informant shares with her mother is their mutual love of cooking. This is a recipe passed down to the informant from her mother, and is interesting because it clearly not “authentically” Korean. There is the obvious “inauthenticity” of a Korean recipe being passed down through a family of non-Korean though East Asian extraction, but in a closer examination of the ingredients that my informant gave me, one in particular stands out as unusual. Worchestershire sauce is definitely not of Korean, let alone, Asian origin, an ingredient that is strongly associated with the European continent. There is also the ingredient chili garlic sauce, with chili being a plant that is native to the Americas and which only spread after Columbus’s voyage. This raises questions, as is often the case, of what is authentic cultural food? Is the use of the chili pepper acceptable as the plant spread in the 16th century, but Worchestershire sauce is not because it has stronger ties to a non-Asian culture? This is a recipe that my informant and her mother have been using for years, but it’s clear that some elements did not come from some grand chain of passing-down all the way from the ancient Koreans.

Japanese girl’s suicide drawing

My informant tells me this story of a teenage girl in Japan who drew a drawing Japan shortly before she committed suicide. The story and drawing went viral in Asia. In the forums online, it is said that you can see the girl’s sadness in the eyes of the girl in the picture. Forums warn against staring into the girls eyes for longer than 5 minutes, telling me that people have committed suicide after doing it. According to my informant, people say the picture changes,as you view it there is a hint of a growing taunting smirk appearing on the girls lips or a dark ring grows around the girl or her eyes.

Me: “Have you looked into the picture for five minutes?”

Informant: “No! I thought it wasn’t a big deal, but it’s really scary when you actually try it! I can’t meet the girl’s eyes for more than a few seconds because I’m afraid of what I will see!”

Me: “Do you believe that people have committed suicide from looking at the picture?”

Informant: Not really… I don’t think they did. But it’s a freaky story, so I don’t know.

Analysis: Through my research, I could not find any solid news articles to support the claim that people have committed suicide after looking at this drawing, though many people claim there are hundreds. Furthermore, I found some forum posts that claim a video-game designer in Japan was the real artist of the portrait and that he was still alive and well. Some forum posts claim that because the image has a blurry quality to it, if you stare at it for too long, your vision will get blurry as well and you are under the illusion that the picture is changing before your eyes. This also has to do with the image being seen on a digital screen.

Because of the context of the story and the atmosphere in which it is often read, this will help induce fear and influence a person’s response. This most likely is an elaborate internet hoax, much like a chain email letter. People enjoy being scared because it provides an adrenaline rush which can be extremely addicting.

My informant is 23, Korean-American, and currently studying at USC (expected graduation 2013). She first saw the picture and heard the story when she was in high school, approximately 16 years of age.

Korean Ritual: Eating seaweed soup on your birthday, leads to a longer life.

In Korea, everyone eats seaweed soup on their birthdays as it brings them a good year and also a long life.

My informant stated that ever since she could remember, her mother would make her seaweed soup on her birthday. She stated that when she asked her mother why every year and on everyone’s birthday they eat this soup, she stated “By eating this soup on your birthday, you will live a longer life.” When I asked my informant where this belief came from, she stated that the long seaweed represents a longer life line. She also stated that pregnant mothers eat this soup once a day for a month during their pregnancy, so that their child will live a long life.

My informant states that she keeps this ritual alive as she makes this soup for her children every year for their birthdays. I believe that this belief came from the nutritional value of seaweed. Seaweed is also a very affordable and cheap food for people in Korea. I believe that in the poorer areas of Korea, seaweed was easily attainable and thus became a staple for birthdays and in general for subsistence. The symbology of eating a long piece of food on one’s birthday to elongate the eater’s life is also a nice symbol.

The Virgin Ghost

Whenever an unmarried woman dies, her spirit is cursed to become a “virgin ghost.” She is forced to roam around, instead of having passage to heaven or having a peaceful afterlife. This ghost is cursed, as no one loves her in the after-life and her appearance also frightens the living.

This story was told to my informant by her friend. They both believed as teenagers that they needed to get married, as they did not want to be cursed as a ghost. She now believes that this was told to encourage young women to get married.  Korean culture wants their offspring to get married as soon as possible. This is due to the fact that in the olden days Koreans considered unmarried bachelors to still be children. My informant also stated that this myth is quite prevalent in Korean television shows that deal with horror aspects.

This is quite interesting as the Korean culture values so much that they are willing to frighten young women in to getting married. What this folklore basically states to Korean women is that, if you didn’t get married you were not wanted, thus in the afterlife you are cursed to frighten people and roam around. Interestingly females ghosts are also prevalent in Asian folklore as menacing creatures, my informant could not give me a reason why to this. It does make sense to me that a “Virgin Ghost” would be lonely in the afterlife as her appearance is frightening. However my informant stated that if the “Virgin Ghost” meets a “ghost spouse,” the spirit will be free to have a peaceful afterlife.

Korean Dream Superstition

“When you have a dream about teeth falling out, that is a very bad omen that brings death.”


My informant first heard this superstition from her mother when she was ten years old, living in the city of Pusan in South Korea.  Her mother had a dream that one of her bottom teeth fell out, so she told all her children to be careful.  Her mother was afraid that since her bottom teeth fell out in her dream that would mean someone younger than she would meet his or her death.  In Korea the people are anxious about having dreams of teeth being knocked out because they take that as a sign of death.  The upper row of teeth would mean death for someone older and the lower row of teeth would mean death for someone younger.  She believes that teeth falling out signifies death because once you reach a certain age, your teeth would start to deteriorate.  Teeth were vital in consuming food, so the absence of them were a great discomfort.  Therefore, when someone lost his or her teeth, it was common to believe death was near, especially without the technology of dentures then.

I can see how death and teeth falling out can be linked together.  The sign of youth can be when a baby first grows his or her teeth.  Hence, when someone becomes old enough to lose his or her teeth, that symbolizes a life coming to an end rather than a beginning.

She’s got her shoes on backwards. – Korean Expression

“She’s got her shoes on backwards.”


My informant first heard this saying in her hometown, the urban city of Pusan, Korea.  It is duty in Korea for males to devote two years of their lives to army training.  The training is not optional but mandatory.  As soon as they were called, the boys would have to leave everything they were doing to move into a military base for two years.  “She’s got her shoes on backwards” is a common saying when a young man returns from his army training.  The saying means that his girlfriend before the army training would have married someone else by the time he returns.  She would did not faithfully wait for him.  Gwi heard this saying when she was in high school and her two older brothers were leaving for army training, and their mother warned them that by the time they return they should not expect their girlfriends to be patiently waiting because they would most likely “have their shoes on backwards.”

Apparently it happened quite frequently in Korea that a girl would not wait for her man to return from training, especially if she were faced with proposals from other men.  I can see how the saying originated.  When you have your shoes on backwards, your shoes point to a different direction.  Instead of walking to her man, she would walk the other direction to a different man.  If she has her shoes on backwards, she would walk away from her man.

Korean Dream Superstition – Pigs

“A dream about a pig is a very good sign promising riches.”


My informant first heard about this superstition from her mother when she was about eight years old, living in Pusan, Korea.  Her mother told her that pigs were a welcoming sign because it would mean the household would flourish with wealth.  That is why dreams with pigs in it were always a delight in Korea.  Her mother was discussing that if she married a man with the Chinese sign of a pig, she would most likely live in riches.  My informant also told me that many people are carefully strategizing to become pregnant in the year 2007 because this is the year of the Golden Pig in the Chinese calendar.  The Golden Pig is unique to the ordinary pig sign because it only comes once in a thousand years.  People believe that if they are to bear a child in the year of the Golden Pig, that child will bring propitious results.

I am not surprised pigs are considered the signs of wealth in Korea because of the nature of the animal.  Pigs are stereotypically obese, food-grubbing, and filthily self-indulgent.  Having a dream about a pig reminds the dreamer about his or her self-indulgences or greed.  Since most people are in a great desire for more money, the pig’s self-indulgence for food would mean indulgence in money for people.  Pigs also provide very good meat, pork.  Therefore pigs can conjure the image of meatiness, sufficiency, and fullness.

Korean Superstition – The Ill at Funerals

“The physically ill in Korea do not attend funerals in fear that death will find them.”


My informant first heard about this superstition when about a decade ago, she was puzzled by her mother-in-law’s unwillingness to attend her (as in the mother-in-law’s) brother’s funeral.  When Gwi questioned her opposition to attending, her mother-in-law who is from the rural city of Daegu in Korea, explained that she was already ill.  Spirits at the funeral could sense an ill person’s presence and would follow her home.  She was afraid of the spirits following her after the funeral to take her with them, so she avoided going.  This kind of superstition is wide spread among the country folks in Korea.  They would never attend a funeral no matter how beloved the deceased was to them if they are ill because they believed the spirits would mark them as the next to die.

If I were battling a fatal disease, I would feel too vulnerable to go to such a gloomy and morbid ceremony.  Not necessarily that I believe spirits would follow me home, but I would be afraid to watch a funeral because death would just seem so real and closer to me.  However, I would still find the courage to attend a beloved’s funeral because perhaps I may find consolation in that death does not have to be so scary and remote as many people make it out to be.

Korean Wordplay

  • Me – It’s weird (or “Teeth will rot”).
  • X – Then go to a dentist.

My informant claims he had created this joke himself.  Nonetheless when he used it on others, they were not surprised saying they have heard the joke before.  Perhaps he did originally think of the joke but others also thought of it simultaneously.  This joke is a play on words.  To say, “It’s weird,” in Korean uses the exact same wording as saying, “Teeth will rot.”  He thought of the joke when he misinterpreted his wife.  While she was stating that something was weird, he took it as her saying that she had a toothache.  Without paying close attention, he advised her to go to the dentist.  Upon hearing such an arbitrary piece of advice, his wife understood his misinterpretation and laughed at him.  Ever since then, which was about a decade ago, he tells a person to go to a dentist if he or she says something is weird.

“It’s weird” and “Teeth will rot” are not just similar; they sound and are spelled exactly the same way.  It is easy to see why someone may accidentally misinterpret the two meanings.  Misinterpretations can be hilarious, so it is not wonder this turned into a joke with several people thinking of it at the same time.

Korean Directional Superstition

"North is the direction of Death"

My informant first heard this superstition from his mother when he was fourteen years old.  His father had passed away when he was thirteen, so in Korean tradition, the sons must prepare a shrine for the deceased father on the day the father died to commemorate his death.  It is a time of reflection and a time to remember the loved one who has passed away.  When he was preparing the meticulous shrine for his father with the help of his sisters and mother, his mother explained to him that the shrine must be set up towards the north side.  When he asked why, she answered that north is always the way of death.  She also added not to sleep facing the direction of north because that is like facing death.

There is some logic to people believing that north would be the direction of death.  Since it is a general belief that there is some kind of an after-life in most religions, people believe in spirits.  Usually after death, the spirits leave the heavy bodies and elevate to a higher plane.  That is why I believe people perceive north as the direction of death.