World Pottery

Onggi Pottery: The Art and Tradition of Korean Fermentation Vessels

Immerse yourself in the world of Onggi pottery, a time-honored Korean pottery style with a history spanning millennia. Distinguished by its distinctive, breathable clay, Onggi pottery facilitates the natural fermentation process of food stored within its vessels. Deriving its name from the Korean term for “breathable vessel,” Onggi pottery holds a cherished place in Korean culture, serving a myriad of purposes, including the storage and fermentation of diverse food items like kimchi, soy sauce, and doenjang (soybean paste).

The History of Onggi Pottery

Onggi pottery is deeply rooted in Korea’s rich past, with its earliest known instances tracing back to the Bronze Age (1500–300 BC). As pottery artisans experimented with diverse clay types and firing temperatures, the technique evolved, gradually becoming more refined. By the time the Unified Silla Dynasty (668–935 AD) emerged, Onggi pottery had seamlessly woven itself into the fabric of Korean culture.

Amid the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910), Onggi pottery thrived, gracing households across Korea with its undeniable charm. Revered for their skills, Onggi potters held an esteemed position in society, their creations deemed indispensable for the preservation and delight of traditional Korean cuisine.

In today’s world, Onggi pottery persists as an invaluable facet of Korean culture and cuisine. Witnessing a resurgence in recent years, the art form has captured the hearts of many who are intrigued by traditional crafts and the allure of natural, sustainable food storage methods.

The Unique Characteristics of Onggi Pottery

Breathable Clay

The primary characteristic that sets Onggi pottery apart from other types of pottery is its use of highly porous, breathable clay. This unique clay allows for the exchange of air and moisture between the interior and exterior of the vessel, creating an ideal environment for fermentation. The porous nature of the clay also helps to regulate the temperature inside the vessel, keeping the contents at a consistent temperature and promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria.

Traditional Techniques

Onggi pottery is created using traditional techniques that have been passed down through generations of potters. The process begins with the careful selection of clay, which is typically sourced from local riverbanks and mountains. The clay is then prepared by soaking it in water, kneading it to remove impurities, and aging it for several months to improve its workability.

Once the clay is ready, the potter shapes it into the desired form using a combination of hand-building and wheel-throwing techniques. The Onggi potter will often create a series of coils, which are then stacked and smoothed together to form the walls of the vessel. This coiling technique is a signature element of Onggi pottery and contributes to its distinctive appearance.

Natural Glazes

Onggi pottery is typically finished with a natural, earth-toned glaze made from a mixture of clay, ash, and plant materials. This glaze not only enhances the beauty of the finished piece but also helps to seal the surface of the clay, improving its durability and resistance to moisture. The glaze is applied using a brush, and the pottery is then fired at a high temperature to create a hard, durable surface that is resistant to chipping and cracking.

What is Onggi Pottery?

Uses of Onggi Pottery

Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish of fermented vegetables, mostly napa cabbage, and radishes. The vegetables are seasoned with a mixture of spices, salt, and other ingredients before being packed into an Onggi vessel. The breathable clay allows the kimchi to ferment naturally, producing a rich, complex flavor that is a hallmark of traditional Korean cuisine.

Soy Sauce
Soy sauce, known as ganjang in Korean, is another food item that benefits from being stored in onggi pottery. The fermentation process for soy sauce involves the combination of soybeans, salt, and a fermentation starter, which is then left to ferment for several months. Onggi pots provide the ideal environment for this process, allowing the soy sauce to develop a deep, rich flavor.

Doenjang is a fermented soybean paste that is a staple in Korean cooking. Fermenting soybeans, salt, and a fermentation starter in an Onggi pot make the paste. Like soy sauce, the unique properties of Onggi pottery help to create an ideal environment for the fermentation process, resulting in a flavorful and aromatic paste that is essential in many Korean dishes.

Other Uses
While Onggi pottery is primarily associated with the storage and fermentation of food, it can also be used for other purposes, such as storing grains, water, and even as decorative pieces in homes and businesses. The natural, earthy aesthetic of Onggi pottery makes it an attractive and functional addition to any space.

Onggi Pottery Today

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in traditional Onggi pottery, both in Korea and around the world. Many people appreciate the natural, sustainable qualities of Onggi pottery, as well as the unique flavors that it imparts to fermented foods.

Onggi pottery is now being produced by a new generation of potters who are dedicated to preserving and promoting this traditional art form. These potters often study under master Onggi potters, learning the techniques and skills required to create high-quality Onggi pottery.

Onggi Pottery in Contemporary Art and Design

In recent years, Onggi pottery has gained recognition and appreciation in the world of contemporary art and design. The unique properties and aesthetic appeal of Onggi pottery have caught the attention of designers and artists looking for innovative materials and techniques to incorporate into their work.

Many contemporary artists and designers are exploring the possibilities of Onggi pottery, creating stunning pieces that blend traditional craftsmanship with modern design sensibilities. These works often showcase the natural beauty of the clay, as well as the intricate patterns and textures that can be achieved through the Onggi technique.

Onggi pottery has also become a popular medium for collaborative projects between Korean and international artists, fostering cross-cultural exchange and a shared appreciation for the art of pottery. Through these collaborations, the rich history and unique qualities of Onggi pottery are being introduced to new audiences worldwide, helping to secure its place as a valued and respected art form.


Onggi pottery is a time-honored Korean craft that continues to play a vital role in the culture and cuisine of Korea. The unique properties of its pottery make it an ideal choice for the storage and fermentation of food, while its natural, earthy beauty makes it a popular choice for both functional and decorative purposes. As interest in traditional crafts and sustainable living continues to grow, Onggi pottery is poised to enjoy continued popularity and appreciation in Korea and beyond.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How is onggi pottery different from other types of pottery?

Onggi pottery is made from a unique, breathable clay that allows for the exchange of air and moisture, creating an ideal environment for fermentation. This characteristic sets it apart from other types of pottery, which are often made from less porous materials.

Can I use onggi pottery for purposes other than food storage?

Yes, Onggi pottery can also be used for storing grains, water, and even as decorative pieces in homes and businesses.

How do I care for my onggi pottery?

Onggi pottery should be cleaned with a soft brush and water, avoiding the use of harsh chemicals or abrasive materials. It’s essential to allow the pottery to dry thoroughly before using it again, as moisture can cause the clay to weaken over time.

Where can I buy authentic onggi pottery?

Authentic Onggi pottery can be found in specialized pottery shops, both in Korea and internationally. Online retailers also offer a selection of Onggi pottery, but it is essential to ensure that it is genuine and made by skilled artisans.

What happened to Korean potters in 1592?

During the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592, known as the Imjin War, many Korean potters were captured and forcibly relocated to Japan. The Japanese were interested in the skills and techniques of Korean potters, particularly their expertise in creating celadon pottery. As a result, these potters played a significant role in influencing and developing Japanese pottery.

Why is the study of Korean pottery so difficult?

Studying Korean pottery can be challenging due to several factors, including the lack of comprehensive historical records, the influence of other cultures, and the fact that many traditional Korean pottery techniques were lost during periods of turmoil and invasion. Additionally, some aspects of Korean pottery have been overshadowed by the more well-known Chinese and Japanese pottery traditions.

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