Bean paste-making 101Living in an apartment, I find it easy to tell what my neighbors are having for dinner. One day, it is the sharp smell of dried croaker being grilled, another day it is the greasy odor of pork belly barbeque. But without fail, one or another of my neighbors has doenjangjjigae with dinner every night.
The unmistakably pungent aroma of bean paste soup wafts from floor to floor, enveloping the entire apartment building with an odor that people unaccustomed to Korean food refer to as “that yucky smell.” Koreans, on the other hand, savor the aroma of doenjangjjigae when it is brought to the table and even exclaim, “That smells delicious!”
Doenjang, or soybean paste, forms the backbone of doenjangjjigae and myriad other Korean dishes. The versatile sauce is used to marinate pork, season pickled vegetables and as a dip for vegetable sticks. Although doenjang-making is a staple of Korean cooking, it is becoming increasingly difficult, because of the long and smelly process, to find people who make it from scratch using soybeans and brine.
Although I do not make my own soybean paste, I have so far managed to avoid the kind in plastic containers that make up one entire section of the supermarket. My generous aunts, who obtain their supplies from relatives in the countryside, keep my refrigerator shelves well stocked with soybean paste.
Well, you can only rely on others’ generosity for so long. Last Friday, I jumped at a chance to strike out on my own. I got word of a traditional soybean and hot pepper paste-making lesson at Hakil-ri, a farming village in Gyeonggi province about an hour’s drive from Seoul. All I needed to bring were aprons and rubber gloves. Aha! This would finally be a chance to have my Martha Stewart Moment, I thought.
During the drive along winding roads to the village community center, the taxi driver assured me that the clean air and water in this community fostered longevity among its denizens. “People in their 90s are very common here,” he said.
When I entered the greenhouse-cum-classroom, an instructor was busy pointing out the importance of fresh air and plentiful sunlight to the 35 women, mostly in their late 30s and 40s, who arrived by bus from Suwon.
“Fresh air and sunlight make all the difference in the world,” said Ju Mi-suk, an instructor from the local farmers’ cooperative. “That is why soybean paste made in the city tastes so different from what’s made in the countryside, even when the same ingredients are used.”
As Ms. Ju spoke, Choi In-sook, a housewife standing next to me, murmured to herself, “No wonder I couldn’t get it right.” Ms. Choi, 49, has been concocting her own doenjang for more than a decade, but always considered her paste too dry.
Here’s another point from the lesson that stuck with me: To achieve a good soybean paste, you must pick the right day to make it. Traditionally, soybean paste is made during the first month of the lunar calendar.
“Tomorrow is the 15th day of the first lunar month,” explained Ms. Ju. “The 1st, 7th, 17th and 27th are auspicious days this month, days when there are no evil spirits about.”
Blocks of dried fermented soybeans known as maeju, which hang by ropes outside the community center building, are used in making bean paste. Maeju is made toward the end of the 10th month of the lunar calendar, with freshly harvested soybeans. After soaking in water for a day and simmering over a low flame, the beans sit for about five hours until their yellowish color turns a reddish hue. The cooked beans are then drained and ground with a mortar.
The ground soybeans are shaped into square blocks and air-dried for five days before being tied to straw ropes and hung in a warm room to ferment for four to six weeks. The straw ropes are important because that natural material delivers the necessary microorganisms to the soybean blocks to start the fermentation process; the microbes secrete enzymes which break down the protein and starch in the soybeans. After fermenting, the soybean blocks are hung to dry in the sun until they are ready for use.
Clean water is also essential to any good soybean paste. “An especially high-quality water should be selected to ensure delicious paste,” notes Gyuhap Chongsoe, an encyclopedia of housekeeping for Korean women published in 1809.
Three days before the soybean paste is made, the maeju are washed in clear running water and dried in sunlight. Brine solution is made at this time and allowed to sit for three days.
Not just any pot will do for storing the soybean paste. One must use onggi, a type of earthenware that allows air exchange with the outdoors. The pot must first be sterilized by boiling water and burning charcoal inside it and finally adding a crock of honey.
With these steps completed before my arrival, to my dismay there was not much to do except lower the maeju into the pot and pour salt water over it. Care is needed to ensure that only clear salt water is scooped from the prepared brine solution (about 20 milliliters of salt water is used for four blocks of soybeans).
I then added a few pieces of charcoal, some dried chili peppers and dates to the earthenware pot. To ward off “evil spirits,” I tied a straw rope intertwined with pieces of charcoal and peppers around the pot.
After closing the pot lid, I must wait two months before returning to separate the maeju from the salt water, which will turn into soy sauce by that time. In my absence, the village elders assure me they will stay vigilant to see that the pots get plenty of sunlight and fresh air.
“We will open the lids after three days,” said a woman from the village. If too much salt water evaporates too quickly, more will be added to the pot to make sure that the soybean blocks ferment properly.
When the day to mix the soybean paste arrives, the separated soy sauce will be filtered through a fine sieve while the maeju will be mixed with powdered soybeans to make the final doenjang. The consistency of the mixture is adjusted by the soy sauce. This mixture is stored in the pot to ripen.
Making hot pepper paste, or gochujang, is much simpler, according to Lee Hee-ja, a local expert. About 4 kilograms of barley are steamed and allowed to ferment for three days. Then, 1.8 liters of powdered malt are added along with 2 kilograms of salt and 3 kilograms of red chili pepper powder. The whole process looks simple enough, requiring only a giant wooden spoon to mix the whole thing evenly.
Although our pamphlets state the precise measurements, Ms. Lee hardly seems to measure anything. “My hands and eyes are the most accurate measurements,” she said. “If you ask me how much of what I put in here, I would not know what to say.”
Although I did not get the thrill of a Martha Moment, at least I will have real countryside doenjang ripening in a pot bearing my name. That sounds a whole lot better than standing at a supermarket aisle reading the labels on the factory-made soybean pastes.
by Kim Hoo-ran