싼게 비지떡 CHEAP THINGS ARE LIKE BEAN CURD RICE CAKES
Ideally rice cakes would be made from rice but in the past when rice was expensive or hard to get hold of other ingredients were added to the mixture.
Beancurd rice cakes were a cheap alternative. They are made from the dregs leftover from making tofu. This is mixed with rice flour and salt and then fried into small pancakes. So it’s a cheap rice cake.
The leftover beancurd is usually thrown away but when there was not enough food to eat it had to be used. And so this saying means that ‘you get what you pay for’. If you buy something cheap you will get a low quality product.
What I find so interesting about this saying though is that the meaning has changed over the years.
And so it shows how the things that we value or take for granted change. And economic development has, as usual, got something to do with it.
The word 싸다 (ssa-da) can mean ‘cheap’ or ‘wrapped’. So the expression can mean both ‘cheap beancurd rice cakes‘ (as it does now) and ‘wrapped beancurd rice cakes‘ (as it did in the past)
THE ORIGINAL MEANING
In Joseon historical dramas we often see the king struggling to cope with a drought and famine which has hit the nation leaving the poor people starving.
Even having a bowl of rice on the table couldn’t be taken for granted. So rice cakes were a luxury that many could not afford. And so they were only eaten on special occasions.
Life in general was tougher too. Travelling anywhere in the country was a hard trek by foot or on horseback.
There’s more explanation about the original meaning of the saying in this video (below) where we hear about two tired yangban noblemen on their way to the capital to take the civil service exam who stop off for a rest at a tavern. Then before they set off again the tavern owner gives them a food parcel wrapped up and tied in a cloth. This is me as the tavern lady…
What’s in here, the noblemen ask?
The tavern owner replies, ‘wrapped beancurd rice cakes’.
The noblemen are grateful for the food to eat on their journey. And set off happily with their gift.
But today rice isn’t scarce anymore and if we get hungry on the way somewhere we can just stop off at McDonald’s. So these rice cakes wouldn’t be appreciated anymore. And are simply considered to be inferior food.