They catch your eye with their wide variety of forms!
These are snacks made with the sweet and soft sweet potato. The sweet potato is a very popular snack food today, but in the past, it was a crop those looking to avoid starvation were thankful to have.
Our ancestors sought out these relief crops to help stave off starvation during famine! What sorts of crops did they find and cultivate?
Why Did Our Ancestors Eat Pine Needles?
“Gu,” to help, “hwang,” lean years
Have you heard the phrase guhwang?
During years of poor harvest, people would search out alternate sources of food besides rice, or when the famine was especially severe the government would provide assistance to the people to stave off starvation. This assistance was called “guhwang.”
Shall we take a look at an anecdote about our ancestors who endured great hardships from lack of food?
When terrible famine ravaged Gaegyeong [present-day Gaeseong, the capital of Goryeo], government officials and commoners looking for food migrated south one upon the other. The Council of Generals (Jungbang) and Censorate (Eosadae) prevented officials from leaving their posts. Many officials starved to death.
- Goryeosa [History of Goryeo], “Sega” [Royal Annals], November 1259 (1st Year of King Wonjong)
During the reign of King Wonjong of Goryeo, there was a famine, and many people, of both high and low status, went looking for food only to end up dying of starvation.
During the Joseon Dynasty, in times of famine many people became vagabonds, leaving their native regions to scavenge for food, only to end up falling victim to disease.
Snow fell on us from early morning. By noon, hail the size of red beans rained down upon us. In the evening, the snow and rain mixed as they fell.
- Seungjeongwonilgi [Diary of the Royal Secretariat], February 26, 1670 (Year 11 of King Hyeonjong)
During the reign of King Hyeonjong, the weather changed drastically, resulting in a poor harvest. Many people ended up falling ill and dying from starvation during the “Great Gyeongsin Famine.”
In premodern times, during famine it was hard to find food even if you were rich. Why was that?
Farming was greatly affected by the weather, and since premodern Korean farming was not very advanced in its technology, agricultural output was very little and insufficient to counter the effects of natural disasters.
To prepare for these kinds of emergencies, rather than continually searching out relief food in nature, early Koreans were inclined to cultivate guhwang crops, or relief crops, to ensure a stable food supply.
Guhwang crops had a short cultivation period relative to regularly farmed crops and were easy to grow even in poor soil. They could also substitute for cereal grains.
The people of the Yeongnam region [or Gyeongsang-do province] have nothing to eat due to famine. Some have even tried to eat cottonseed, but those who did perished.
- Veritable Records of King Myeongjong, February 9, 1554 (Year 9 of King Myeongjong)
The government also compiled a book to prepare for years of poor harvest. During the reign of King Myeongjong, when a terrible famine struck, many people died from lack of food or after ingesting inedible things.
Scholars compiled information into a preparation guide called the Guhwang chwaryo for use in hard times. Historically, our ancestors ate a variety of different relief foods. What are some of the main foods mentioned in the Guhwang chwaryo?
A much sought-after food eaten during lean years that was also easy to find in Korea was the pine tree.
Pine-needle powder was mixed with other ingredients to make a porridge. The book notes that pine needles alone lacked necessary nutrients and so they needed to be supplemented.
From the 4th to the 8th day of this month, frost covered the land. It was like this again today. The cereal crops withered and died, so crops were uprooted from every field and buckwheat planted.
- Veritable Records of King Taejong, May 14, 1414 (Year 14 of King Taejong)
Meanwhile, the Veritable Records of King Taejong records the importance of buckwheat as a relief crop. This was because it could be easily substituted for grains that would not grow.
But buckwheat itself was limited as a food. If its viscosity seemed thin, people would add other grains to make guksu noodles, or if there were no other grains, they would make it into a jelly.
In this way, people developed several cooking methods to compensate for the limitations in cooking with relief food. What was so special about them?
“This was a time when rice and grains were scarce, so they included a very small amount of grain in their cooking, and instead added many guhwang crops to increase the volume of food. They would make buckwheat porridge, olchangimuk, or noodles, and this would make it tastier and more special while also increasing the volume of food.”
Yoon Sukja, Director / Institute of Traditional Korean Food
Relief crops, cultivated to help overcome low crop yields!
Our ancestors were able to supplement the lack of nutrients in small quantities of food and stave off starvation by coming up with effective cooking methods.
The State and Intellectuals Took the Lead in Spreading
The people in every county are ordered each year to prepare famine relief items.
Gyeonggukdaejeon [Great Administrative Code]
As you can see in the book of basic law, the Gyeongguk daejeon, the agriculture-centric Joseon considered guhwang extremely important. During years of poor harvests, grains that had been stockpiled would be lent or distributed freely to the starving. Even relief crops were distributed. Let us see how relief crops were dispersed throughout the country by taking a look at buckwheat.
3,000 seok of buckwheat seeds from Chungcheong-do were transported by boat to Punghae-do (Hwanghae-do). The people of Punghae-do lost the opportunity to farm due to drought, so they were given seeds to plant crops.
- Veritable Records of King Taejong, May 24, 1405 (Year 5 of King Taejong)
In the Veritable Records of King Taejong, when farmers were unable to farm due to drought, buckwheat seeds were sent to various areas of the country. King Sejong demanded that the fast-growing buckwheat be cultivated throughout the country. How was buckwheat sent to every corner of the land?
Send an official notice to every province for buckwheat to be cultivated. Encourage its cultivation according to the season.
- Veritable Records of King Sejong, June 1, 1423 (Year 5 of King Sejong)
In the Joseon Dynasty, transport policies were put into place. There were tribute granaries built throughout the country to hold the grain. The grains given as payment for taxes were loaded on grain transport ships called jounseon and moved via joun transport routes to the granaries in Hanseong, the capital.
With the smooth easterly winds, the buckwheat seed, shipped on jounseon, will be transported effortlessly from villages deep in the mountains to the coastal ports.
-Veritable Records of King Jeongjo, June 5, 1798 (Year 22 of King Jeongjo)
During famine, rice and beans, and or course relief crops like buckwheat, could be packed into these jounseon and shipped off to different parts of the country. In the late Joseon period, transport networks expanded and grains were sent to areas with low stockpiles.
For example, in the 18th century, during a famine that hit Gangwon-do and Gyeongsang-do, the Gyojechang granary in Hamgyeong-do sent grain to them, and when a terrible famine hit Hamgyeong-do, the Pohangchang granary in Gyeongsang-do sent them grain.
But while the government set out to disperse buckwheat, scholars were leading the movement to cultivate and popularize another crop-the sweet potato.
The sweet potato is sweet and has an easy temperament. It is such as the ma (Chinese yam). Islanders do not eat multi-grains, but eat only this, and many have lived long lives.
- Bencao Gangmu
At a time when there was no information on sweet potatoes, Korean scholars learned how valuable they were as a relief crop through foreign medical and agricultural books. But after scholars visiting Japan with the Joseon Tongsinsa (Joseon delegation to Japan) learned about the sweet potato, they earnestly began introducing it to Joseon society.
When sweet potatoes were first brought in, farmers repeatedly failed in their efforts to grow them. But after continuous research by scholars, yields increased, and, with the help of the government, the crop was dispersed throughout the country.
The efforts of the government and scholars to free the people from the sufferings of hunger are well reflected in the history of guhwang crops.
Must-Know Facts on Culture and Art in Korean History
1. In olden times, to help those suffering from famine, the government put forth relief efforts called guhwang.
2. Pine trees, buckwheat, and sweet potatoes were eaten as relief foods.
3. To help prepare for years of poor harvest, there was a book called the Guhwang chwaryo published during the reign of King Myeongjong of Joseon that described helpful relief crops.