Korean War’s impact on local diet & fashion
By Lee Hyo-won
The Korea War broke out 60 years ago on June 25, 1950 and continued for three years until 1953. The Korea Times took a peek into what everyday life was like during the skirmish, in particular the changes brought upon what one ate and wore during the conflict and afterward.
Military `spoils’ & bread boom
The traditional Korean diet centered on rice and kimchi remains largely unchanged today. As Koreans experienced the war, however, interesting new culinary cultures developed and local dietary customs transformed as foreign foodstuff became widely available.
During the war farmland was destroyed while spells of bad harvests hit places where farming continued. Agricultural production declined by 27 percent while almost a quarter of the population suffered from extreme starvation, according to Han Bok-jin, a food critic and professor at Jeonju University.
Though a shortage of food during wartime is nothing new, many Koreans were already malnourished. Japanese colonizers, who ruled the peninsula from 1910 to 1945, had confiscated farmland and exploited agricultural goods, resulting in the suffering of many Koreans.
There is always a way however to survive even the direst of circumstances.
Many had to resort to primitive methods of hunting and gathering. People who lived near the oceanfront relied on nature’s gifts like conches or picked berries in the woods.
``I clearly remember the Nakdong River battle (in August 1950), which was the deadliest in the war. There were so many dead bodies of soldiers around the shore, and I remember there were `godong’ (type of tiny shell) that were stuck on the corpses. I never ate godong again to this very day,’’ Jeon Hun-sik, 71, recalled of the time. He was 11 years old when the inter-Korean conflict broke out. His land-owning family was at odds with the North Korean government and found refuge in the southern port city of Busan.
There were also military ``spoils.’’
``I remember eating `ggulgguri juk’ (piggy porridge) when I was little. Leftover food from the U.S. military base was collected and cooked together in a big pot and sold by the bowl in the market,’’ he said. ``It was a real treat, with cheese, butter, pineapple and if you were lucky, pieces of meat. But now that I think of it, it was really trash. There were also cigarette butts and other inedible things in the mix.’’
Today ``budae jjigae,’’ literally military base soup, is widely popular. It’s a mix of canned beans, macaroni, ham, cheese and bacon _ ingredients with U.S. army base origins _ that goes surprisingly well with kimchi soup. However, this dish has separate roots from the wartime piggy porridge. Its origins can be traced back to how some of the luckier Koreans who had access to clean, leftover meat from foreign army base kitchens or canned sausages. These ingredients would be added to the average kimchi soup, said professor Han.
Naturally, canned goods were hot items in the wartime market. ``Workers transporting cans from the cargo ship to the port `dropped’ some into the water and these were later retrieved by divers. But since the labels would disappear, it really depended on luck whether you’d get spinach or beef,’’ recalled Jeon.
Other treats introduced through foreign soldiers were snacks such as chocolate and biscuits _ period movies and TV dramas almost always feature small children running after military vehicles shouting ``chocolate!’’ in broken English.
The consumption of milk, which had previously been limited to the privileged, became more widely available via American aid. Powdered milk was distributed for free during the war, and became the root of future manufactured biscuit industries.
In addition to milk perhaps the greatest change brought about during the time was the widespread introduction of wheat-based goods. American surplus commodities were brought into the country through agreements such as the 1955 U.S. Public Law 480. In the years immediately following the war, from 1956 to 1960, about 50 to 60 tons of rice, wheat and barley were imported _ which was equivalent to about 40 percent of their domestically-produced counterparts.
``I remember that all I ate was flour-based dishes like `kalguksu’ (noodles) and `sujebi’ (Korean-style gnocchi). There was also a lot of bread, milk and ice cream,’’ said Jeon.
Because plain white rice was rare, boiled barley was served in ``bibimbap’’ (mixed vegetable rice) style. This nostalgia-evoking dish, called ``boribap,’’ is widely favored today through nationwide restaurant franchises such as Sawore Boribap. Rice was also prepared in the form of porridge so as to serve more people.
Even kimchi, the national side dish, underwent changes, said professor Han. ``Before the war most regions _ since kimchi varies according to geography _ used salted yellow corvina or shrimp to flavor kimchi, while pickled anchovies were mostly limited to Gyeongsang Province. But after the war, pickled anchovies became widely used as well as a lot more red pepper.’’
Military look, Dior & nylon
After liberation, Koreans heavily relied on U.S. aid relief for everyday goods such as clothing. Military uniforms were dyed (or stamped ``SKIG’’) and distributed to civilians. This gave birth to shops that specialized in dying uniforms around the Cheonggye Stream area in Jongno, downtown Seoul, according to Ko Bou-ja, professor of traditional costume at Dankook University.
The demand was high for such recycled clothing during the war and even afterward. Particularly popular were U.N. allied forces jackets. ``When I attended Dongguk University, college kids had to wear school uniforms. The uniforms were dyed army uniforms,’’ said Jeon.
The war also initiated some military-inspired fashion _ the ``military look’’ these days is nothing new. Popular items included the Gabardine flare coat that came with a hood or the trend of inscribing one’s name inside jackets. Parachute cloth was also much-loved for its light weight and versatility and was used to make women’s blouses and men’s undershirts and jackets. The parachute cloth fed directly into Koreans’ love for nylon.
The Korean government however tried to impose restrictions in order to promote a ``wartime-friendly’’ habit among civilians. In 1952 a law was passed to restrict the import, sales and consumption of foreign goods including textiles, and velvet and nylon were banned.
Interestingly, the red clothing was extremely popular in the 1950s, according to Ko Bu-ja, professor at Dankook University. Red was heavily associated with the Communist North Korea, and North Koreans were called a rather derogatory term ``bbalgaengi’’ (reds). Red was used in not only outerwear but also underwear.
The wide use of such clothing naturally gave way to an increased number of tailor shops. Many women widowed by the war who suddenly found themselves breadwinners of the household found employment as seamstresses.
Western-style clothing, such as Christian Dior’s ``new look’’ also became more widely sought after by women in post-war Korea. The flared skirt and short haircut Audrey Hepburn sported in the 1953 film ``Roman Holiday’’ became hot items in 1954. Perms, manicures and parasols, as well as modernized ``hanbok’’ (traditional dress) were also widely introduced.