Eating Yeot

Korean_pumpkin_candy-Hobakyeot-01South Korea did not have a good time at this year’s World Cup. I’ll admit, in the grand scheme of things this was a historically average World Cup performance for Korea, two losses and a draw. Koreans were angry, not necessarily because expectations have risen unreasonably since we made it to the semi-finals in 2002 (a feat I highly doubt we will ever repeat again), but because let’s be honest, the team was simply awful. Korea barely made it to the World Cup in the weakest regional group and showed no signs of improvement. One fan in particular was so outraged by the poor performances that he took it upon himself to show up at the airport and throw yeot candies at the returning players while shouting “Eat yeot! Eat yeot!”

Before I explain how this fan’s words and actions could be construed in two ways (the right way and the oh-we’re-definitely-going-to-beat-Russia-and-Algeria-and-maybe-make-it-to-the-quarter-finals-after-beating-the-USA sort of delusional way), I’m sure many of you are wondering what yeot is. Yeot is a traditional Korean confectionary (or hangwa) made from grains or sweet potatoes (basically, anything with starch) that have been steamed and fermented with barley malt and boiled until liquified. Depending on the boiling period, the yeot can take a syrup form (jocheong) which is used for cooking or for other hangwa, or it can solidify when cooled and be stretched into a taffy-like substance. Although it can be consumed by itself, many local varieties involve folding ingredients such as sesame seeds, pumpkin, walnuts, etc. into the yeot as it cools down. And according to Wikipedia, there’s a kind in Jejudo that involves pork, so I shall be planning a trip to Jejudo soon to taste some of that sweet, sweet pork candy and confirm that it isn’t some cruel hoax.

So we’ve established that yeot is a kind of Korean taffy. Then what does it mean when someone hands you a piece and tells you to eat it? Well, it’s usually an insult but let’s start with the nicer interpretation. Yeot is a mainstay of the care packages prepared by loved ones before big exams. There is a saying that if you eat yeot, you’ll do well on the exam. Well, the direct translation is that you’ll stick to the exam, which makes the yeot connection make sense since yeot is sticky and if you eat yeot, you’ll gain its properties and stick to the exam and the desk and whatever. I don’t think it’s literal. I personally don’t subscribe to the belief, as I get terribly distracted by things stuck to my teeth and I feel like eating yeot before an exam would just be inviting all sorts of distractions, but hey, it must work for a certain percentile of people. So in this context, providing yeot is a sign of good will and the hope that you will do well on a future endeavor. This must mean that the fan who threw yeot at the national team was just an overeager supporter who couldn’t think of a better way to hand the players yeot than throwing it at them while verbally explaining what to do with the yeot in the hopes that they would do better next time, right?

Well, if you are of the Luis Suarez school of delusional thinking, then yes, that is what happened. But that’s of course not what actually happened. No, you see, “eat yeot” is a phrase whose English language equivalent is, how shall I say this, fuck you? Oddly enough, the origins of this meaning of the phrase also come from the Korean exam system, albeit from one exam in particular. You see, back in the 1960s, you had to take an exam to get into the good public schools in Korea, and this was a big deal since a good middle school can lead to a good high school and that can lead to Seoul National University and ???? PROFIT! So even the slightest error on an exam could blow up into a shitstorm. Which did happen for the middle school entry exam held on December 7th, 1964. You see, there was a multiple choice question regarding the manufacturing of yeot (how on earth elementary school students were supposed to know this, I have no idea. Different generation of yeot makers, I suppose) and the question asked for a substitute for barley malt. Although the intended answer was diastase, an enzyme found in barley malt that catalyzes the breakdown of starch into maltose, several students chose the second choice, which was daikon radish juice, which according to their sixth grade textbook, did contain the aforementioned diastase and therefore theoretically could be a correct answer. Since this was a highly competitive test whose results could hinge on a single question like that, parents of the students who chose the second answer were understandably outraged when only the first answer was deemed correct. So they made giant pots of yeot using daikon radish juice and went to the the Ministry of Education, the Superintendent’s Office, all of the organizations involved with the entry exams and protested, telling the officials to eat the yeot to see that daikon radish juice was a perfectly acceptable substitute for barley malt. Eventually the officials relented and 38 students who chose the daikon radish juice answer were granted entry into the top middle schools, and the incident became an example of how ridiculously intense Korean parents can be. And the phrase “eat yeot” stuck in the popular consciousness as an insult until it became the equivalent of fuck you. Which I guess was always the case, but now it’s just more explicit.

Of course, there are alternate explanations for the origins of yeot as an insult, mostly having to do with yeot being slang for various sexual organs but I’m guessing that those have been attributed retroactively by those who haven’t heard of the actual origin. In fact, the reason why I decided to address this topic was because of a Deadspin article about the incident that explained that the expression translated to “eat dick” because sticks of yeot look like dicks (apparently sourced from an Ask a Korean blogpost)? Which isn’t convincing at all, but then again, how can you blame them from not knowing the origins of the insult which lay in a fifty year-old exam kerfuffle? But there is one convincing alternate theory. Supposedly the phrase “eat yeot” actually started out as the equivalent of “shut up,” as the sticky nature of yeot can glue the jaws together and prevent one from speaking. This is further strengthened by the Korean tradition of sending yeot with the bride to her in-laws, which has been explained both as a sweet gift and as a means to shut them up so they can’t nag her all the time because they can’t really talk with yeot in their mouths. I mean, talk about passive aggression.

So telling someone to eat yeot isn’t usually a good thing. The one situation where it might not be construed negatively is if you’re offering it to someone who has never tried it before, since yeot is actually quite delicious. Or if you’re a yeot vendor, since I don’t think anyone would assume you’re trying to build a successful business by telling all potential customers to fuck off. But I’m pretty sure that all of the players on the Korean national team have eaten yeot before, and the fan who threw the yeot at them definitely used store-bought yeot, so I think we can rule out both possibilities. He definitely meant to insult them. And now, so can you! The next time you meet an annoying Korean person, hand them a piece of yeot. They’ll probably laugh and say, “Did you know, this is actually an insult in Korea.” And you can look them straight in the eye, smile, and say, “Yes, I know.” 

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