Patience doesn’t come easy these days. In fact, life in Seoul rarely seems to encourage it. For making doenjang, however, patience is not only important but a complete necessity. From seed to sauce, the process takes almost an entire year.
“When I signed up for the Kong Project, a yearlong endeavor to learn how to make soybean paste and sauce from scratch, I knew it would be a crash course in learning how to wait.”
After the initial planting, there were a number of months that simply involved weeding. Planned monthly trips were par for the course but so too was impromptu maintenancing when our patch of land got a bit too overgrown. On such occasions, those who were available would head out to Hansol Farm in Namyangju for a tiring but rewarding day outside the urban bustle of Seoul.
Such trips, planned or not, were often highlighted by fantastic meals, whether it was by sharing a potluck meal in the farm’s Big House or ducking into a countryside restaurant that specialized in producing their own doenjang.
It was on a post-farming trip to one such restaurant, Jeongajip, that was a real lightbulb moment for myself and others in the group about the true power and utility of fermented soy.
As a general rule, consumers in South Korea are used to the caramel brown color of the mass produced doenjang used at most restaurants and available on supermarket shelves. However, the fermentation process of such doenjang’s has been made to fit an industrial, profit-driven timetable.
At Jeongajib, their doenjang is aged for far longer. The one used in our doenjang jjigae was an earthy dark brown, the color of extremely fertile soil and its flavor a deep, dank umami. The difference is so stark that the two doenjang pastes are almost unrecognizable as being the same product.
To further our fermentation education, we visited a “soy sauce master”. For me, the term conjured images of an ancient bearded man in a gray, quilted hanbok. Instead, we were greeted by a cheerful and decidedly modern middle-aged woman, a winner of several soy sauce competitions. She shared with us the necessary process of boiling the soybeans low and slow overnight before mashing the still warm beans and forming them into meju, the rectangular block form in which the soybeans ferment. It would be necessary to keep the meju in a humid environment for a couple of weeks before hanging it in the cold winter air in a cradle using byeot jip, a dried rice straw which is friendly with the bacteria attracted to the fermenting soy. Before we could do this, however, we would need to harvest.
The long-awaited harvest rolled around in late October. It was a surprisingly easy process to pull the soy plants from the ground. They came up as if of their own will. We marked the occasion by returning to Jeongajip and celebrating with rounds of cheongha.
A few weeks later, after the plants had dried sufficiently, we returned on a cool November morning for shelling. Leading up to this, my mind turned to shelling butter beans with my grandmother back in South Carolina. I expected a similarly passive, time-intensive process.
Instead, upon arriving we were handed long, thin pieces of plastic pipe. With these, we would thresh the dried pods. The method sounded a bit suspect, but it worked surprisingly well. Aside from being much more fun than sitting and shelling for hours on end, the rhythm and rasping thwacks of multiple people hitting the dried plants is a sound that I will never forget.
With winter closing in, the shelling day was a satisfying end to our farming experience. Soon, we would return for what we essentially all had signed up for: fermentation.
Jordan Redmond will share his story on the final stages of the Kong Project in a future issue.