During many traditional Korean commemorative ceremonies called jesa (제사), there is a part where a family’s ancestors are honored by being “brought in” through an open door and allowed to dine on the food first before the family that prepared it. Once it is time for the meal to be eaten by the family, the prepared foods are cooked again, but only this time, properly seasoned with garlic.
The informant is my mother who is the youngest child on her side of the family and the only one who has regular contact with her mother/my grandmother as our family is the only one among our extended family living in the United States with them. Because of this, most of my grandmother’s teachings and culinary knowledge have been passed down to her. Despite many of the commemoration ceremonies being done in the honor of my father’s side of the family, my mother dutifully carries out the traditional cooking required for the occasion. While not highly religious, my mother still holds out on traditional beliefs of karma and good deeds eventually being rewarded so perhaps she follows these traditional rules so closely as to hope for better for her children.
The ceremony for the commemoration of ancestors or other traditional events usually falls between brunch or dinner-times so most of the family does not eat until then. Because everyone gets hungry, I asked my mother why she needed to cook the food again when everything was prepared, the ceremony was finished, and all that was left was to eat. She replied that the food needed to be cooked again properly since she left out the seasoning, particularly the garlic. When I asked why, she said that garlic wards off spirits. I asked why this was and my brother chimed in to explain to me that one of the creation myths of Korea involved a bear turning into a human by eating nothing but gloves of garlic and mugworts for 100 days, giving garlic in particular some level of spiritual power.
Garlic being such a powerful supernatural warding tool surprised me as I thought it was specifically targeted towards vampires from Western legends. Garlic is an incredibly common ingredient found in Korean cuisine so it never properly registered to me as it could have any sort of special meaning beyond a universal ingredient. If garlic was so regularly consumed, why were there even ghost stories to begin with? Was superstition just that prevalent that it may have influenced every-day cooking to ward off malevolent and clingy spirits? There are some accounts where eating garlic wards off tigers and eating pickled garlic in particular being a procedure that was recommended to those traveling through mountains as to not encounter a tiger on their journey. As an avid fan of putting garlic as seasoning for most things, it made me question if garlic was used so extensively for its supernatural benefits, its taste, or the simple convenience of both tasting good and warding off evil. Interesting to note how garlic’s effects are indiscriminate to spirits in general as the spirits that are relevant in this context are “good” spirits who are honored to give blessings to their descendants but they are still affected by its effects.