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Onggi are Korean ethnic earthenware, which were extensively used as tableware as well as storage containers in Korea. It includes both unglazed earthenware fired near 600~700°C and pottery with a dark brown glaze that burnt over 1100°C.
The origin of onggi dates to approximately 4000 to 5000 BC. There were two types of earthenware: a patternless earthenware which is called Mumun pottery and a black and red earthenware. The former, a patternless earthenware, was made with lumps of clay including much fine sand; however, the predecessor of Goryeo celadon and Joseon white porcelain, a black/red earthenware, was being made with only lumps of clay. The color of earthenware is determined by the iron contained in the mud and the way of burning the pottery. The present onggi shape dates from the Joseon era. There are many records about onggi in Sejong Sillok Jiriji (세종실록지리지, King Sejong's Treatise on Geography): "There are three kilns that make the yellow onggi in Chogye-gun and Jinju-mok, Gyeongsang Province" (Lee and Jeong, 16).
Compared to porcelain, onggi has a microporous structure and has been found to assist in the fermentation of Korean fermented foods such as gochujang (chili pepper paste), doenjang (soybean paste) and soy sauce. Onggi with proper porosity and permeability needs to be used in order to produce an optimally ripened quality in fermented foodstuff. Fine tuned onggi containers are, in fact, suitable for many different kinds of fermented products. Since early times, Korea has been famous for fermented foods. In ancient Chinese historiography, in the chapter on Dongyi (烏丸鮮卑東夷傳) in the Records of Wei (魏志), which is part of the Records of the Three Kingdoms (三國志), there is this remark: "Goguryeo people have a custom of making fermented foods" (Lee and Jeong, 100). The abundance of soybean, which grows naturally in Korea, the fresh fishery resources from the sea surrounding the Korean peninsula and a proper climate for microbial development, all give account of the importance of fermentation as food processing. However, onggi ware also contributed to the development of fermented dishes within Korean cuisine.
Onggi, made by a specialized group of workmen called onggijang (옹기장), has been influenced by the characteristics and climate of the regions where it has been made. Therefore, there are shapes and sizes of onggi and ways of manufacturing it that vary from region to region (Jeong, 138). Nevertheless, all onggi types share some properties. These are biodegradability, porosity, and rotproofness as well as firmness or "vertebration" (Jeong, 132).
Decomposition, the Biodegradable Nature of Onggi
When onggi is chipped or broken into bits, it decomposes into earth. That is why it is difficult to find old shards of onggi. Alternatively, when ceramics are broken then can be ground into small chunks and added to clay to lend support in the construction of new pots. It is easier to break down damaged pots and recycle the contents than it is to dig up fresh clay. It is like adding stone to cement for support. Typically once clay is fired it is no longer clay but a new material called ceramic which does not "decompose." The relatively low firing temperature and poreocity of the fired ware make it rather easy to break compared to porcelain ware and thus easy to recycle.
While burning onggi, the onggijang master glazes its surface. This glaze plays a key role in giving a waterproof surface and preventing leaks. Following up, many particles of sand are included in the body of the clay acting as passages for air. This way, air can move through onggi while water cannot. Koreans call this action, "onggi drawing breath." This is one of the most critical reasons to use onggi in making Korean fermented foods.
How to make
Onggi is made of clay that contains a high percentage of iron. First,the clay is dug out from the ground 3 feet or more deep. the clay is placed in a large basin of water and the clay removed of its large impurities stones bits of roots etc. Then,through levigation it is filtered in a large basin trough a coarse sieve. The clay is placed in a porous eathenware bowl to dry and be workable. When the clay is ready it is rolled and beaten with a wooden mallet to compact it and make it more manageable. When the clay is ready to be worked and shaped, it is placed on a traditional Korean kick wheel. First, a large lump is dusted with powdered clay and placed on the center of the wheel and beaten with a flat angled wooden paddle. Then a large roll twice as long as the circumfence of the clay is flattened around the perimeter of the clay disc, the flat ribbon that is formed is inverted and pinched onto the clay disc with the hand; a smaller roll of clay is then pressed on the inside of the now formed shallow cylinder. Then through beating and pinching, the jar is formed with a paddle and an anvil until it reaches the half way point. The clay is left to dry slightly or forcibly dried with charcoal embers or a large headed blowtorch. Again dried in the sun bowl and wet the lye, and then once again dried and mixed and stir ashes and the clay containing many iron. Thereby glaze painting on an onggi is created. After wet glaze in a bowl and draw patterns and on the body and sufficiently dry that onggi. Finally, bake in the oven to finish the bowl.
- Moon Yongrin 문용린 and Oh Hyeonseok 오현석, "A study on the actual state of scarce resources and the extinctive process," Gyoyuk Gwahak Gisulbu 교육부 [Ministry of Education, Science and Technology], 2004), 74-91.
- Changwon Jeonmun Daehak 창원전문대학 [Changwon College], "Balhyosikpumui pumjire michineun onggiui mulseongpyeongga" 발효식품의 품질에 미치는 옹기의 물성평가 [Property evaluation of onggi on the quality of fermented food] (Nongnimbu, 2004): 7, 39-64.
- Robert Sayers (1987). The Korean Onggi Potter. Smithsonian Institution Press. p. 18.
- "Ilbanjeok teugiseong" 일반적 특이성 [General characteristics]. Onggi Maeul 옹기 마을 [Onggi village]. June 27, 2008. <http://pottery97.com.ne.kr>.
- Jeong Byeongrak. "Conversation with Onggi." Dongkwang publisher. 1998
- Lee Hoonseok and Jeong Yangmo. "Onggi" Dae-won-sa. 1993
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