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Culinary connoisseurs crave kimchi crocks

Americans becoming aware of health benefits of Korea’s traditionally fermented foods

SAN FRANCISCO (Yonhap News) ― Several non-Korean cookbooks have introduced millions of Americans to the basic techniques of making kimchi in recent years, but the trick is as much in the fermentation ― a process that requires the right tool.

Koreans in the past relied on handmade ceramic vessels, called “onggi,” to maintain the right temperature and speed for fermentation, but the demand for onggi has decreased in South Korea with the adoption of electric refrigeration. Nowadays, most Koreans use chillers tailor-made to keep kimchi segregated from the rest of the food in the kitchen and to keep the taste fresh.
Adam Field with his wife Heesoo Lee (Yonhap News)
Adam Field with his wife Heesoo Lee (Yonhap News)

But Adam Field, one of America’s few onggijang, or onggi potters, who initially has been producing highly ornamental pieces, has noticed increased demand for lower-cost functional pots as fermentation “foodies” discover his work online. Americans are developing an awareness of the health benefits of traditionally fermented foods and their interest in onggi is apparently growing alongside this trend.

Onggi are the somewhat breathable clay pots Koreans have traditionally used to ferment kimchi, doenjang (fermented soybean paste), gochujang (spicy red pepper paste) and soy sauce. These rustic and sturdy pots are key to Korea’s more than 5,000-year-old fermentation culture.

“Heavy ceramic cylindrical crocks are the ideal fermentation vessels, though they can be hard to find and expensive,”

traditional foods expert Sandor Katz wrote on his Web site, Wild Fermentation (

Americans who desire to make kimchi in an authentic manner discover onggi are difficult to find online or in antique stores.

Second-hand onggi or similar vessels sold in the U.S. often have holes drilled in the bottom, making them work as planters but not as fermenters.

American kimchi crafters often use glass canning jars or food-grade plastic containers.

Those passionate about using ceramic vessels can ferment their creations in easier-to-find German sauerkraut crocks. Sauerkraut crocks can cost US$150 for five-liter capacity to $500 for 40 liters. By comparison, Field’s onggi range in volume from one to 10 gallons (nearly four to almost 38 liters) and in price from $85 to $400.

Because each step is linked to those before and after it, it takes six to eight weeks for Field to make each onggi. That’s an hour to form a large onggi from moist clay and at least a week to air dry.

Then he needs enough pots for their initial firing in the kiln.

After that, the pots are glazed and fired a second time. At last, they are ready for the consumer.

Field studied onggi production in 2008 under the tutelage of Kim Il-mahn and his three sons ― Song-Ho, Chang-Ho and Young-Ho ― in Icheon just outside Seoul.

Field already had 10 years of experience at the pottery wheel and knew something of historical Korean pottery and other crafts.

On prior trips to the country, he visited historic kiln sites and contemporary pottery studios, piquing his interest in traditional Korean pottery.

The Kim family took Field on as an apprentice for 10 months and taught him how to make onggi using the coil-and-paddle method on a kick wheel. The technique was totally foreign to him.

“I was very much out of my element, technically speaking, for the first few months of my time with the Kim family,” the 34-year-old onggi potter said. “It was an extremely humbling experience, to say the least. I thought I was a pretty good potter when I arrived in Korea, but I learned quickly that I had just been a big fish in a small pond.”

He called his experience with the Kim family “the most challenging and rewarding professional experience of my life.”

Field’s choice to dedicate his life to making pottery started in college. Originally studying photography and drawing, he took a pottery course “on a whim” and realized he enjoyed the hands-on production. Photography was moving away from darkroom work to digital imaging and computer post production, leaving him feeling empty.

He filled the void by changing the focus of his undergraduate art coursework at Fort Lewis College in Colorado to pottery. Field graduated in 1999.

After a two-year residency at Pope Valley Pottery in California’s Napa Valley, he began making pottery full time and taught ceramics from 2003 to 2007 at the Hui No’eau Visual Art Center in Makawao, Hawaii.

Then Field moved his family to Korea, but it wasn’t to perfect his pottery proficiency.

“We moved to Korea to allow our 3-1/2-year-old son to learn his mother’s language and to get to know that side of the family much more,” he said.

His internship in Korea taught him methods centuries old.

“I was introduced to an ancient way of working with clay,” he said. “Most of the techniques I had worked with up to that point were a random mix of techniques I had picked up from many sources ― the American way. Onggi-making has such a long history, and each step has a very specific purpose developed for efficiency.”

Field has been a guest lecturer at colleges and universities across the U.S., sharing onggi techniques with other potters.

Often, the discussions turn to culture.

“I quickly learned that the workshops were also a great way for me to discuss Korea’s amazing culture and how something as simple as a no-frills brown crock could have so much importance over such a long period of time to the survival of that culture,” he said.