Special pride in Korean food
On Feb. 15 or 23, many ``families with stout bones” across Korea will produce this year’s soybean paste (doenjang) and soy sauce (ganjang). Making these basic foodstuffs at home is still an important annual tradition in the culinary life of a respectable Korean family.
Just 10 years ago, among middle and upper class Korean families it was considered indecent to buy basic foodstuffs. Even today, when most Koreans gladly rely on food companies to produce traditional food items, many Korean families still boast about their time-honored bean paste and soy sauce, much like Italian families that cherish their balsamic vinegar. Their recipes will be undoubtedly handed them down to the next generation.
Although I witnessed the process of making bean paste as a child, as a career woman, I’ll admit to not having paid the process much attention. Instead, I buy farm-produced bean paste from Sujinwon Farm in Gyeonggi Province. The former owner, the late Jung Seong-hwa, was a champion of traditional Korean food.
In fact, he cultivated only Korean bean species, believing that imported beans ran the risk of containing genetically modified organisms (GMO). The farm is also home to a lab that’s dedicated to researching the world’s fermented pastes. Even late in life, Jung served lunch to visitors as he preached the importance of wholesome food in fostering good health.
Fermented bean pastes and soy sauce are Korea’s quintessential ``slow foods.” Since they take time to prepare, housewives begin by buying good-quality beans in the autumn. While the process may look complicated, modern conveniences mean that anyone can learn how to do it. In fact, I’ve made it twice to my great satisfaction.
To expedite the process, I recommend purchasing blocks of dried, already fermented beans (meju). These blocks are placed into salt water, which is measured by an inexpensive and convenient ``salinity meter” that’s used exclusively for this purpose. The proper degree is between 17 percent and 21.5 percent, depending on the date ― between January and March by the lunar calendar ― and location.
According to custom, the later the date and more southern the location, the saltier the water. Quite scientific, isn’t it? In the past, people had to figure out the salinity by the exposed part of an egg in the salty water.
The fermented beans remain in the salt water for about 2 months in an earthen jar. During this time, the cook must ensure that two conditions are met: the jar must be sealed sufficiently so no insects can enter, while being exposed to full sunshine and fresh air. These conditions seem contradictory, which is probably why housewives used to spend endless hours exposing their bean paste to sunshine and air while fending off flies and other insects.
This conundrum was solved some years ago by an ingenious glass cover made with mesh sides and a tight rubber seal. Suddenly, people everywhere were liberated from what had been a sort of Mission Impossible. Of course, the inventor reaped billions of won for his clever device.
It’s said that the most delicious bean paste is made during the first month of the lunar calendar, probably because it ensures sufficient time for the sauce to mature.
For your reference, at the end of the process, the soybeans are mixed and kept as paste while the water becomes soy sauce. If the two aren’t separated, the yield is a tasty, albeit watery and salty bean paste.
One point I don’t understand, however, is choosing a specific date for the work. According to tradition, one has to select a ``horse day,” according to the East Asian zodiac. Supposedly this is because the horse is considered a clean animal. Perhaps the moon’s movement affects the process? To be honest, I don’t buy the theory, but I advise you to follow the rule if you don’t want to ruin the year’s batch! This is why only two days in January by the lunar calendar are the proper days.
Some years ago, a global advertising agency surveyed Koreans on how they perceive their culture. The results showed that we have absolute pride and affection for our food. Koreans consider our indigenous food to be healthy, delicious, diverse and culturally sophisticated. This wholesale endorsement is in contrast to many Koreans’ views of our traditional music, dance and literature.
To be sure, Koreans’ love of our cuisine can border on the obsessive. I’ve witnessed many foreigners who don’t understand why Korean tourists make a beeline for a Korean restaurant as soon as they arrive in a foreign city. Even during the flight they will choose a familiar Korean dish like bibimbap over a Western-style entrée, if given the choice.
I don’t find this impulse surprising. Human beings often return to foods they enjoyed during their formative years. This is why Koreans who have lived abroad for many years often say that they increasingly miss Korean cuisine as they grow older. I even heard someone cite this longing as a major reason why an intercultural couple divorced!
Regardless of our pride in, and love of, our food, it’s inevitable that changes are taking place in Korean kitchens and on our tables. Eventually, some foods will disappear and some will be revised while others will survive. Whatever the result, I am confident that the time-honored soybean paste and soy sauce will stand the test of time.
The writer is the chairwoman of the Korea Heritage Education Institute (K*Heritage). Her email address is Heritagekorea21@gmail.com.