How to make bean paste: mix the cello with Buddhism
From the eaves of a nearby building, large clumps of dried fermented soybeans, known as meju, hung on ropes and swung lazily like chimes.
Do Wan-nyeo, 52, walked back and forth under the eaves inspecting her handiwork. A cellist who once studied music in Germany, she married a monk and headed out to the countryside to produce doenjang, the paste made from meju and placed on virtually every dining table in Korea.
Then she caught sight of me, waved me over and offered me a cup of tea.
“I offer at least three cups of tea to every visitor who comes out here from a ways away,” she said, “because drinking tea is like drinking composure.”
She explained that people are so used to living busy lives that they sometimes feel odd if they have spare time. Some guests, she says, don’t even stay for the third cup. “It took them four hours to get here and they don’t even have time for three cups of tea? That’s ridiculous!”
Ms. Do said many people were surprised to hear that she, a graduate of Seoul National University and a successful college lecturer, had married a monk named Donyeon and settled down in a remote village in 1993. (Having married, Donyeon is no longer a monk, but says no one calls him by his birth-name, Na Jong-ha.) The move to Jeongseon might have taken some by surprise, but Ms. Do says it has taught her a great deal.
This immersion in nature has allowed her to witness slow but enlightening processes, such as soft flowers bursting from hard buds. The scenery is certainly peaceful; one visitor from Ulsan said she felt at peace just by looking at the rows of pots.
“The cello and doenjang are very similar, in terms of requiring patience,” Ms. Do said. “It takes about two or three years to make doenjang taste good, while it takes about 10 years to make a cello sound good,” she joked. “So I was ready to be a doenjang maker.”
She even plays the cello for the doenjang, believing that it helps the fermented soybeans paste taste better.
Her husband, Mr. Na, 60, started making doenjang here in 1989, four year earlier than Ms. Do. Once a monk in the city of Gwangju, he witnessed the uprising there against the military regime of Chun Doo-hwan. The army’s brutal response led him to question his purpose in life, and he left to wander around India. After walking 2,000 kilometers (1,242 miles) around the subcontinent, he decided that he had to “feed himself for himself.”
“Monks are living on what others earned,” Mr. Na said. “They wake up at 3 a.m., what they call the most sacred time. They shave their heads and act pious sitting down in some shining polished Buddhist temple. And listen to what they pray: They wish for the reunification of the peninsula, wish for all people to live well and wish for the right amount of rain or snow so that nothing is upset.
“Do you think that’s realistic? Praying for those kind of things at the most sacred time, I thought it wasn’t right.”
Arriving in Jeongseon, he found a community of villagers whom he called “poor and lazy.” Deciding that they must be shown the power of hard work, he looked for a business that could produce both food and money. He eventually settled on doenjang.
The idea of a former monk living well, however, strikes many Koreans as unnatural. After all, didn’t he spend his time living austerely to escape from the material world? Didn’t he advise others to do the same? Some visitors, he says, come expecting a Spartan household of starving ascetics. When they see a married couple with three kids and a successful business, they leave angry and disappointed.
“People expect us to have a few pots of doenjang and be living on a subsistence level,” Ms. Do said. “But I need more money so that I can share more with others.”
What Ms. Do is sharing is “doenjang camp,” a one-day retreat for adults and children offered throughout August that includes nature walks, roasting sweet and regular potatoes, a cello concert from the woman herself and lunch, all for free. The couple also paid for 14 elementary students in the village to go to Seoul, Mount Geumgang and China.
Ms. Do says she has two plans. One is to enroll in the graduate school of food science at Kangnung National University in March. “I’ve been working with microorganisms for more than 10 years, and if I study more about them I think I can do better,” she said.
Her long-term goal, though, is to build a secular meditation center where anyone can drop by for a while to find comfort and energy.
How to make meju
The main ingredient in doenjang is meju, fermented bean paste. It may be on every dining table in Korea, but for such a basic element, it's rather complicated to make:
1. Soak beans overnight in water.
2. Boil the beans for four hours.
3. After boiling, cover it with a lid and wait two hours.
4. Pound the beans in a mortar.
5. Fill the meju molds with 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of bean lumps to make hexagonal blocks.
6. Set the blocks on straw and them dry for four days. The bacillus subtillis from the straw will work its way into the bean lumps.
7. Once the surfaces of the hexagonal lumps have dried (the inside will still be soft) attach each lump to a rope and hang it for 30 days to let it ferment.
8. The blocks at this point should weigh about 1.4 kilograms. Place them on a floor with a temperature of around 25 degrees centigrade (77 Fahrenheit) and make sure there is a steady draft of air.
9. After 15 to 20 days, a white mold should be covering the blocks. Time to have them swing on the ropes for another 15 days.
Once you've got a large supply of meju, it's time to make real doenjang. It’s not too complicated, but it takes a while:
1. Brush the white mold off of the meju blocks.
2. Break the blocks with a hammer.
3. Knead the meju, then mix it with salt water and put it in a pot.
4. Wait 45 days. You have other food, right?
5. Scoop the meju paste out of the pot.
6. Stir the paste together and put it back in the pot.
7. Wait another eight months.
8. While you're waiting, open the lid on the pot from time to time to let the paste soak in the sun. (Playing the cello for your paste is optional.)
by Park Sung-ha