Here I go again! Another post about Korean food. But it’s really hard to avoid topic of food when talking about Korea and my childhood memories.
There three main essential sauces in Korean food: 된장 (Doenjang, soy paste sauce), 고추장 (Gochujang, red chili paste sauce), and 간장 (Gangjang, soy sauce). My paternal grandmother used to make these from scratch each year, starting from soy beans as all three sauces come from the same source.
I always knew when she started this process as the house would be full of the smell of steamed soy beans when I come home from school. She usually bought a very large sack of soybeans in the fall and steamed them all at once. I have no idea how she managed to do that since her steaming process always happened while I was in school during the day. All I know is that by the time I came home mid-afternoon, she would have steamed and somewhat cooled the large sack of soy beans already.
And the fun begins!
Both my grandmother and I would stand on the large steamed sack of soy beans and start smooshing them under our feet. It is a bit like those videos of wine makers who are crushing grapes with their feet although the beans were inside the sack and mushier. I often got really enthusiastic and jumped up and down on the sack and thankfully nothing splattered. Every time you step, there is this smell of steamed soy beans everywhere. As much as I associate that smell with my childhood, I did not like the smell when I was stepping on them. I just liked crushing the soy beans with my feet.
Eventually you do need to take the soy beans out of the bag and make sure they are paste-like. There are always some larger chunks of bean here and there (that’s part of the charm), but essentially you should be able to shape it like a clay. The shape my grandmother usually made was a cube, about 10 cm (or close to 5 inches) on each side. Of course, me being the child, I often made 2-3 chunks into cones or other fun shapes. My grandmother usually let me make whatever shape I liked for a few of them although I now know that some of those weird shapes were not optimal for the fermentation process. These shaped soy bean pastes are called 메주 (meju).
These meju pieces are then dried very carefully. My grandmother would usually set them carefully under the shade right outside the back of the house, protected from the rain (rain and freezing is a no-no). And there they sat until the weather started to get cold. She treated meju like her pets. Once the weather got cold, the meju pieces would come right back inside the house and take up very prominent places right next to 연탄 난로 (Yeontan stove – Yeontan is a coal briquette that was commonly used in Korea for heating when I was young). That and heated floors (more to come on this).
Around February is when the next phase starts. It is still cold out, but not completely frozen over. My grandmother would take these cubes and put them inside a large 독 (dok, Korean clay pot) and fill it with sea salt water. Sea salt is very important. Even though I was young, she made sure to tell me we never use just any regular salt. Don’t ask me why not…something to do with it being natural? Some kind of aid in fermentation process? No idea.
I don’t know how the magic happens, but once the cubes starts floating in the water (initially they stay at the bottom), the water turns dark. This is essentially beginning of soy sauce. I am sure I have forgotten some little process that happened while I wasn’t paying attention, but this miraculous sudden floating of cubes and dark water in the pot was what is left in my memories.
My grandmother would then fish out the the wet meju and divide them in half. The soy sauce would be used as soy sauce of course. Why divide the now again soy paste (but fermented) in half? Well, there are 2 other sauces to make. To make doenjang, one half of the paste is put into another dok and covered with sea salt to ferment further. It should be done in a month or two although you can let it ferment as long as you like. There are “young” doenjang and “old” doenjang and anything in between and are used for different dishes.
The other half of the paste is mixed with red pepper flakes — Preparation for this is a whole another story. Essentially, my grandmother would spend weeks drying red pepper on our balcony. You cannot go near this balcony while peppers are drying since it is so hot you will start crying — and rice flour (and there might have been some barley flour in it, etc. But mostly the 3 main ingredients are meju, red pepper flakes, and rice flour. This mixing process happens in a gigantic bowl. My grandmother used to have a wooden spoon that was about 3 feet tall. I used to stir the bowl by walking around it holding the spoon.
These three sauces are just basic, but they take 6+ months to make. If you buy soy sauce, I recommend you always looking for “naturally fermented” and ones without some kind of additives or wheat in it. The sauces are fermented so the preservatives are not necessary. I do not understand why companies that make these sauce nowadays add just random stuff. Needless to say when I go shopping for these sauces, I literally spend more than half an hour reading every brand’s ingredient so I find the right one with no preservatives, naturally fermented, and no additives.
Another note…I introduced just three sauces here, but within each 3 sauces, there are incredible variety of sub-sauces. There are soy sauces for soup, dipping, cooking, etc. (all different, I know!). There are dozens of different kinds of doenjang and gochujang for different occasions.
As this post is getting long, I will have to introduce you to the incredible Korean pots (독, dok) that behaves like a refrigerator in my later post. Stay tuned…