Mother's Hand Taste (son-mat), 2017 - 

Living hand yeast and bacteria, Nuruk fermentation starter, synthetic biology, social research, video. Dimensions variables

*Honors: Ars Electronica  Prix Ars Winner  |  2019

               Victoria and Albert Museum  ⎟ 2019

               Ars Electronica  |  2018

               London Design Festival - Open Cell | 2018

               Bio Art and Design Award  Final Winner ⎟ 2017

Mother's Hand Taste (Son-mat) project is a development of Woo's previous Hand Taste (Son-mat) project. With the awarded funding from Bio Art and Design Award 2017 (, Woo collaborates with H.A.B. Wösten from Microbiology department of Utrecht University. 

Mother’s Hand Taste (Son-mat) was titled after the Korean word son-mat, (which translates as ‘hand taste’). The project explores the complex relationships between intangible cultural heritage, microbiology, immigration, and notions of a ‘transient self’. Woo experimented with the control and development of generational inheritance by visualizing and then bio-fabricating the hand yeast of multi-generational family members across four global locations, to examine its effects on the taste of fermented food. By Investigating “hand taste” through artistic and scientific means, it reflects critically on the origins, authenticity, and preservation of cultural heritage.


Mother’s Hand Taste (Son-mat) involved social research, laboratory work, computational design, and additive manufacturing technology. Its main outcome is the creation of a conceptual and mechanical objet aimed at capturing, storing, and growing one’s own son-mat - specifically, to be used in the brewing of the traditional Korean fermented rice wine, makgeolli.



The Mother’s Hand Taste (Son-mat) project is composed of genealogical research on hand fungi and its influence on food taste, a visualized replication of son-mat, and a ritualistic hand-infecting objet aimed at preserving son-mat. By handling and observing these objects, viewers will be encouraged to think critically about the significance of cultural identity, heritage, and the passing down of invisible experiences in artistic, scientific, and sociological perspectives.

Contact of food with the hands of the cook is an essential part of Korean cuisine. The Korean word son-mat, meaning “hand taste,” relates to a compliment in response to excellent culinary abilities. If someone is a good cook, the compliment would express that that person possesses good “hand taste.” Significantly, the word also connotes associations to family history, particularly the wisdom of ancestors, and gratitude toward nature. Son-mat is a mechanism for triggering special memories and a deep sense of belonging through the act of eating, as the knowledge of producing a particular Son-mat is a quality passed down generationally.



The project started by selecting four 3-generation Korean households (grandmother, mother, daughter) from 4 historically relevant countries (Korea, Japan, United States and Netherlands) with different eating habits. Understanding each family’s history, dynamics, eating habits, and learning them in the specific country setting for artistic documentation were necessary.


At the same time the first set of hand fungi of the three generations was collected according to a protocol provided by Han Wösten. The subjects all individually cooked the same traditional fermented drink, Makgeolli. After cooking, the second set of hand fungi was collected from the subjects together with their dishes. Along with the cooking process, the emotions between the generations within the households were recorded. Towards the end of my interactions with the subjects, environmental portraitures and photographs of hands for each subjects were taken.   



Professor Han Wösten from Utrecht University is an expert in fungal growth and development. <*He was awarded several research prizes among which the Simon Stevin Meester award 2008 (500.000 €). His work is also part of the Future Food program of Utrecht University>. With Professor Wosten at Microbiology department of Utrecht University, the hand yeasts of 12 participants were being cultured, purified, identified, and compared between the households, the generations, and time of sampling. We were also investigating the different influences that the various hand yeasts have on the taste of traditional fermented food. Colonies of the hand yeasts in different dimensions and shapes were grown in order to physicalize and visualize the invisible organisms inhabiting in the subjects’ hands.

We work together in order to research the genealogical relationships between yeast, the yeasts' influence on the fermentation of foods, the appropriation of these yeasts as artistic material, and the appropriate of these yeasts as new material. This collaboration enabled to expand the genealogically oriented formulation of Son-mat into a cross-cultural understanding.

Hand Yeast Visualization

Example of the 3rd generation of US family participant's hand microbiome transformation 

Participant's hand yeast swab collection BEFORE cooking

Participant's hand yeast swab collection AFTER cooking Makgeolli

Participant's  Makgeolli

Hand microbiomes were cultured in medium:

250ml 2 x SCMM

250ml 2 x Water Agar

1.25ml Phosphate

0.5ml chloramphenicol Stoc

0.5ml Ampicillin Stock

***All processes were done for 12 participants

Once the purified yeast cultures of all participants were ready, they were identified using Remel RAPID yeast panel test. The yeast cultures were then compared among family generations, countries of origin, and time of sampling. Three unique innocuous yeasts of the families were chosen for the use of sculpture: Tri. Beigelli, Rhod. Rubra, and Rhod. Minuta.  The chosen yeast cultures were centrifuged for the concentration.  


FOOD OF TRADITION - Makgeolli and Nuruk

With its long history in relation to politics, economy, social class, and colonialism, Makgeolli has been chosen by Woo to be incorporated in the Mother's Hand Taste (Son-mat) project. Both commercial and family inherited Nuruk, fermentation starter (that is over 60 years old), were examined and used both artistically and scientifically. 

Makgeolli is a traditional Korean alcoholic beverage, with a history of more than 1700 years, made by combining cooked sticky rice, water and a starter culture called Nuruk. It is milky-white, fizzy and refreshing. It is also called “Nongju” which means “farmer’s liquor” because it is made mostly of rice and was traditionally often drank by farmers as part of their midmorning snack or with lunch, consoling their physical labors. Nuruk is a dry cake of wheat, barley, and rice that hosts a variety of wild yeasts, bacteria, and Aspergillus Oryzae, Aspergillus Nigar and Aspergillus Kawachii mold spores. 

Making family’s special Nuruk and home-brewing of Makgeolli  first faded under Japanese colonization, when they forbade any alcohol making activity at Korean households in part of Korean culture obliteration. Then there was another government prohibition, after the national liberation from Japan, under president Park because of economic slump and lack of food after the Korean War. This was the time period when some variation in Makgeolli happens by making with wheat, corn, and other grains. 

The Objet


© By Jiwon Woo

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