Finding meaning in a bowl of doenjang

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Finding meaning in a bowl of doenjang

A few years back, a Korean female friend told me that I was very “doenjang.” Since Korean doenjang is a strong, musty soup made from soybeans with a diluted muddy appearance, I thought this an overly frank and needlessly cruel description. I never asked her just what exactly she meant by this, and years later I am still wondering where my particular affinity to Korea’s popular soup lies.
Doenjang is a Korean staple because it is inexpensive, nutritious, easy to make and aids in digestion. It is served so ubiquitously that Koreans have it almost as often as they have rice. Doenjang is perfect for reviving the taste buds after they have been assaulted by thick slabs of Korean pork, washed down with strong soju.
I’ve seen construction workers scooping up large spoonfuls of doenjang mixed with rice, bibim style, from large metal bowls. Even in more elaborate settings, doenjang occupies a less prominent place, making way for other favorite side dishes. But it is still present, serving as a sort of anchor upon which the palate returns no matter where it may explore on its culinary journey.
Every country has its representative soup. The Russians have schi or cabbage soup. The Japanese have miso, which, while also made from soybeans, is more delicate in appearance and lacks the hardy medicinal qualities of Korean doenjang. The Vietnamese have pho and Americans have their New England clam chowder.
French and Japanese cuisine are often praised for their polished and poetic presentation, but the origin of soup itself is far removed from art. Soup has been around ever since humans realized that they could stave off the chill of winter with bits of leftover vegetables and some chicken bones.
Wanting to discover something lyrical in doenjang, I recently peered deeply into a steaming potful, trying to glean even a hint of poetry from its murky depths.
I have to report that I saw nothing approaching even a limerick, let alone a haiku. But I did see tasty, albeit lopsided chunks of vegetables and tofu. No, doenjang is not made to please the eye but to please the palate and buttress the body. It’s a stubborn dish that says to the world: I am what I am, I am good for you and that is my strength and beauty. The beauty of doenjang is indeed inside.
It’s possible to carry a metaphor to the point where it loses relevance, but perhaps this is what my Korean female friend meant when she said I was so “doenjang;” that I exuded the inner qualities of Koreanness.
The next puzzle is why she broke up with me, me with all my wonderful doenjangness.

by Stephen Son
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