Sharing the tradition of fermentation
|Lee Mi-ran, an expert on fermented food, prepares kimchi in front of her jars in which doenjang (soybean paste) and soy sauce are ripening. She said that kimchi will soon be one of the most sought after fermented foods in the world. [PARK SANG-MOON]|
When she fell ill, well-ripened kimchi and fresh doenjang (soybean paste) helped her in finding her way back to health. As she had more and more of it, she felt her body heal, and after two years, she succeeded in standing on her own two feet again.
Lee Mi-ran, a representative of the Korean Traditional Fermented Food Schole, is an expert on fermented food. Her interest stems from her days in bed, when she deeply wished to have kimchi and doenjang. After her family finally brought her the food, she found herself feeling better each day.
“Our traditional fermented foods like kimchi, doenjang, soy sauce, and vinegar ripen in jars full of microorganisms. I call this ‘the culture of fermentation,’ said Lee. “Fermentation is not some technology that humans developed. It is like a table full of meals prepared for people who gave nature a closer look.”
When Lee went to Afghanistan in 2001 to aid war refugees, she fell ill with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which attacks one’s peripheral nerves and completely paralyzes them. Patients who overcome the early stages of the syndrome, which often lead to death, have been able to recover within two years.
|1. Home-brewed liquor made by Lee Mi-ran to be used for vinegar making. 2. Various types of vinegar. Black vinegar contains a wider variety of amino acid than most types of rice vinegar. 3. A traditional meal prepared with side dishes of fermented food. 4. Lee Mi-ran puts kimchi inside the jars. 5. Homemakers learn how to make kimchi from Lee Mi-ran. [PARK SANG-MOON]|
“In 1980, in his book ‘The Third Wave,’ Alvin Toffler foretold that a ‘third taste’ would conquer the world,” said Lee. “According to him, the ‘first taste’ is unprocessed salt, the ‘second taste’ is processed sauce, and the ‘third taste’ will be the fermented taste.”
Lee added that fermented food is one of the foods best suited for the era of climate change.
In Lee’s front yard sit 250 jars filled with doenjang, soy sauce, gochujang (hot pepper paste) and deodeok (mountain herb root) sauce, each housing food requiring different fermentation periods. Around 50 jars with vinegar, however, were kept inside a fermentation cellar.
“This is to keep the vinegar from decomposing,” said Lee. “Vinegar is relatively sensitive, and its microorganisms may die out if it’s surrounded by the footsteps of too many people.”
Jars preserving soy sauce kept to this day for over 100 years were also notable. The sauce was handed over from Lee’s grandmother to her mother, then to Lee herself. Koreans usually add aged soy sauce to newly made soy sauce to form a deeper taste, and the same goes with doenjang.
“Aged soy sauce and doenjang are critical to keeping the taste,” said Lee.
Sitting alongside others, jars with deodeok sauce were filled with fermented deodeok, bean vinegar, and three-year-old doenjang, which were each put in at a ratio of 1:1:1. Lee named the sauce “health beans.”
Every first Saturday of the month, homemakers gather with Lee to learn how to make kimchi. The number has grown these days with the arrival of the gimjang season, or Korea’s kimchi-making season. Lee, sometimes called ‘a woman crazy about kimchi,’ joyfully hands down her kimchi-making technique, which she herself learned from her mother around 30 years ago.
“In order to make delicious kimchi, one must prepare tasty jeotgal [pickled fish],” said Lee during her kimchi-making lesson. “Jogi [yellow corvina] must be pickled when barley begins to ripen and turn yellow, and hwangseoguh [young jogi] jeotgal tastes best when prepared in late May.
Good jeotgal is the key to preparing delicious kimchi, and also other types of food.”
In Lee’s cellar also rest bottles of home-brewed liquor. Liquor is known as one of the first fermented foods of mankind, and it contributes greatly to creating a special taste. Lee also started brewing liquor with the aim of creating better quality vinegar, as good liquor is a premise to good vinegar. Lee knows from experience that strong liquor leads to high quality vinegar that doesn’t decompose easily.
Every winter, Lee heads to the United States to introduce kimchi to young people from all corners of the world, most of whom had never tried kimchi before.
“Some people jokingly asked me if we added drugs to the kimchi,” said Lee. “They said that they were surprised by its strong taste at first, but wished to have another bite the next day.”
Traditional fermented food, whether it be kimchi, vinegar, or doenjang, is impossible to produce in big amounts in factories. As a citizen of the land where kimchi originated, Lee wishes to create a village of fermented food, and is planning on establishing one with a few other people. She hopes to one day create a village where foreigners could stay for a few nights and experience various traditional activities like gimjang.