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What soy sauce can teach us about the history of South Korea

‘Three books published within a year – that happens only once in a lifetime!’ This was the reaction of Katarzyna Cwiertka, Professor of Modern Japan Studies at Leiden University, on the publication of Cuisine, Colonialism and Cold War, one of her three new books. The book sketches the colonisation of Korea by Japan, through the medium of food.

Food as academic subject

‘I have always been interested in food; my master's thesis in 1990 was even about food at the Japanese court. At that time this kind of subject was very unusual. People didn't regard food as academically relevant, but that has changed.  Today, you even have universities such as New York and Adelaide offering master's programmes in Food Studies.' Cwiertka explains: ‘Food studies can provide a lot of information about the culture of a country. It goes much further than incredients, recipes and table manners.  Food can teach us a lot about history and identity, as well as about economy, politics and international relations.' Next year Cwiertka will be teaching in the bachelor's programme in International Studies, and food will definitely feature in her lectures.

The role of soy sauce in colonialism

An example from Cuisine, Colonialism and Cold War is the case of the manufacture of soy sauce, that provides us with unique direct evidence of how colonialism permeated Korean cuisine. Soy sauce - the ‘soul’ of Korean cuisine – was originally made in the home, with each family having its own recipe handed down from generation to generation. However, with the industrialisation of soy sauce manufacture in the 20th century, this distinction began to disappear. More importantly, the manufacturing methods were not traditional Korean methods, but were those introduced by the Japanese during the colonial period. And most Koreans do not even realize that the soy sauce they consume on a daily basis is a product of the colonial experience. Cwiertka: ‘Understanding the implications of the industrialisation of soy sauce production on Korean taste preferences helps us to comprehend the far-reaching, longstanding and unforeseen consequences of Japanese colonial rule.’

Packaging and waste

What Cwiertka finds fascinating is that you can take something apparently small and everyday, such as what people eat for breakfast, and from that perspective study such large-scale processes as colonisation and industrialisation. Cwiertka originally studied Japanese in her native Poland, and since then has broadened her field of interest geographically to Korea. But food has always been a theme in her research, and will continue to be so in the future. The next area she is going to focus on is food packing and food waste: ‘Food packaging can tell us such a lot about how a society thinks about the food it consumes, and how the attitude to food consumption has changed over the years. It’s going to be fascinating!’

(14 december 2012 / MLH)


Cuisine, Colonialism and Cold War
Publisher: Reaktion Books Ltd., London
Hardback, illustrated
ISBN: 978 1 78023 025 2

The Asian Challenge is one of the six themes for research at Leiden University.

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