Onggi (Korean: 옹기) is Korean earthenware, which is 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 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 (Korean: 세종실록지리지, "King Sejong's Treatise on Geography"): "There are three kilns that make the yellow onggi in Chogye-gun and Jinju-mok, Gyeongsang Province".
Compared to porcelain, onggi has a microporous structure and has been found to assist in the fermentation in food processing such as the preparation of gochujang (fermented chili pepper, bean and rice paste), doenjang (fermented bean paste), kimchi (fermented seasoned vegetables), 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 Biographies of the Wuhuan, Xianbei, and Dongyi (traditional Chinese: 烏丸鮮卑東夷傳) in the Records of Wèi (traditional Chinese: 魏志), which is part of the Records of the Three Kingdoms, there is this remark: "Goguryeo people have a custom of making fermented foods". 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. Large onggi ware were stored on the jangdokdae, an elevated floor near the house.
Onggi, which are made by a specialized group of workmen called onggijang (Hangul: 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. Nevertheless, all onggi types share some properties. These are biodegradability, porosity, and its proof against rot as well as firmness or "vertebration". Due to the low firing temperatures often used in producing onggi, they are rarely found archaeologically since the sherds return to the clay state or is used as grog.
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 an Onggi Is Made
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. Through levigation, it is then filtered in a large basin through a coarse sieve. The clay is placed in a porous earthenware 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 circumference 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 a rounded wooden anvil until it reaches the half way point. The clay is left to dry slightly or forcibly dried with small metal can with holes on it,to which hot embers are burning in it or a large blowtorch is used, once the jar is dried to leatherhard the top half is commenced until the rim is formed, once the jar is finished, it takes two people to lift it off the potters wheel,using a sheet that is wrapped around the lower part of the jar one potter holds the two ends of the sheet and the other potter holds under the folds of the sheet. The jar is taken to a hay covered shed with a mud floor to slowly dry. When the jar is leather hard, the jar is dipped in a solution of ashes and clay called yakto usually found under trees, before the clay is fully absorbed by the jar a design is made by swiping the glaze off with the tips of the fingers.
- Moon, 74-91
- Lee and Chung, 16
- Changwon Jeonmun Daehak, 7, 39-64.
- Lee and Chung, 100
- Sayers, 18
- Jeong, 138
- Jeong, 132
- 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
- Jeong Byeongrak. 옹기와의대화 [Conversation with Onggi]. Dongkwang Publisher 동광출판사. 1998. OCLC 41132937.
- Lee Hoonseok and Chung Yangmo. Onggi. Daewonsa. 1993. OCLC 27170579.
- Moon Yongrin 문용린 and Oh Hyeonseok 오현석, "A study on the actual state of scarce resources and the extinctive process", Gyoyuk Gwahak Gisulbu 교육기술과학부. [Ministry of Education, Science and Technology], 2004
- Robert Sayers (1987). The Korean Onggi Potter (PDF). Smithsonian Institution Press.
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