What does the process of fermentation bring to mind? Most people will think of the delicious results: cheese, beer and, increasingly, kimchi. Maybe the minds of some will leap to the process of ingredients undergoing almost miraculous transmutation. While the former thought is certainly the more mouth-watering, it’s only the end-point, lacking in context similar to seeing just the result of a game. To appreciate fermentation, we should think of the things we can’t really perceive but are happening nonetheless, a lot like how change occurs throughout our lives and then presents itself to us one day while standing in front of the mirror.
After our October harvest and the cathartic shelling that followed, it was finally time to make meju–the loaves of boiled soybeans that would literally become the building blocks for our doenjang and kanjang. A full six months after putting the seeds in the ground, the fermentation process could finally begin.
To make meju, we had to soak the soybeans overnight and then boil them for several hours. Due to the time intensive process, our indelible project leader, James Thole, stayed over and did the “dirty” work. However, in hindsight, there are worse things than sleeping in a tent overnight on Hansol Farms on a cool November night, and in hindsight, it would have been great fun to help out with that stage.
James’ sacrifice set the stage for us to gather fully rested at Byungsoo Kim’s mother-in-law’s house on a grey Saturday at the end of November. Those of us who chose to make the meju on- site arrived to a still-steaming pile of soybeans wafting a nutty odor.
It was our job to mash the beans into a paste and then form them into sturdy rectangular bricks. We would take a large scoop, wrap them in old bedsheets and walk on them similar to what French winemakers did to grapes in the past. It was a fun tactile process that made us all broadcast silly grins, the warm beans underfoot becoming ever mushier. After the mashing we crafted blocks of varying exactitudes of rectangular shape. We signed our names on them and left them to ferment for nearly 6 weeks, at first in a warm, humid storeroom and then to dry in the brisk winter air.
After the meju had dried, we would all convene for the final time, again at Byungsoo’s mother-in-law’s home, where she would teach us how to begin the wet fermentation of the meju in traditional Korean pots called hangari. To purify our pots, she insisted we burn byeot jib or rice straw in the pot and to use charcoal to filter impurities while the doenjang and kanjang were separating. Folks followed her lead and added a couple large dried red peppers and jujubes into the saline water covering our meju.
After having received her guidance, it would be up to us to pot the meju at our own places of residence. In my case, my fiancee and I did it in the back of the car park of my seven-floor apartment building. A bit like naughty children, we lit the fire and placed the hangari in a place where we hoped my building owner wouldn’t notice. Occasionally we would check on it and wonder if we weren’t doing something horribly wrong. Did we add enough water? Is that good mold or bad mold? Did I just waste several months of my life?
In-between the time of setting the final fermentation process into motion and the writing of this series, I found a new job, got officially engaged (gleaned in-law’s approval), and relocated to a new apartment. Lots of change at once, so much that we forgot the hangari in the move. In fact, we were so busy getting our bearings, cleaning suspect surfaces, and putting together IKEA furniture that it took a few weeks to retrieve the hangari. There was always the refrain, “Ahh!…It’ll be alright.”
Yet when we finally visited the old neighborhood, we shared a rush of anxious uncertainty. Approaching the building, would my tempestuous owner have tossed it? Ultimately, the hangari was there, unmoved as a pot of fermenting soybeans always would be. As I lifted the cumbersome pot, a voice called out, “Oh, so that’s your pot?” It was the kindly restaurant owner from next door. After taking it across town in a taxi, the relief upon placing the pot on the veranda and opening the lid was as palpable as the smell that came sweeping out from under the lid. Not simply of fermenting soy, the smell was one of relief at the knowledge that some things proceed as they should without your even trying.
The Kong Project, a year-long effort to take soybeans from seed to sauce, was as much about embracing change as it was about learning patience and trust. During the year, so many things in my life went from one extreme to another. Working nights to working days. Living alone to living with my fiancee. My future being unfastened to it being tied to someone else indelibly. Throughout it all, I learned to trust the process and you can end up with your just rewards, whether that be doenjang or the life that you want.