Korean dramas and movies often feature scenes of meals, and the lively atmosphere is captivating. The staples of Korean cuisine include bibimbap, buchimgae (pancakes), samgyeopsal (grilled pork belly), cold noodles, tteokbokki (simmered rice cake), and hotteok (sweet pancakes). Most people who travel to South Korea can find the food scene so enchanting that they are eager to indulge in gourmet dishes day and night.
Korean author Kim Byeol-ah compares the food culture from different countries in her essay Eating in the K-Book reading guide 『ちぇっくCHECK Vol.9』. She wrote, “There is an old saying that the Chinese taste with their tongues, the Japanese taste with their eyes, and the Koreans taste with their stomachs.” She concluded that Korean food is a gastronomic delicacy that must be savored with the heart, and not the tongue. As a cuisine meant to be savored with both the stomach and the heart, one of the tastiest ingredients with umami in Korean food is the traditional fermented seasoning, jang. This includes gochujang (red chili paste), doenjang (soybean paste), and ganjang (soy sauce), all of which are well-known fermented foods in Japan.
To learn about Korean food and fermentation techniques, we met Kim Suehyang, a third-generation Zainichi who has lived in Korea for 26 years and runs Qyun, a café in Seoul, which specializes in fermented foods.
Born in Tokyo, Japan, Kim Suehyang has been living in South Korea for 26 years. While studying in South Korea, she began working as a media coordinator and writer to promote Korean culture in Japan. After launching the Korean culture magazine 『スッカラ』 as a project editor, she is now specializing in Korean food culture. She started the farmers’ market, Marche@, in Seoul, which opened doors to learn about Korean food through Korean farmers in a new way. This led her to expand her interest in grasses, fermentation, bean culture, and native seeds in South Korea. While running a cafe Qyun that focuses on fermentation, she writes about Korean food culture to her audience in Japan and South Korea. She worked as a coordinator for books such as 『食べる旅 韓国むかしの味』、『コウケンテツ 僕の大好きな、ソウルのおいしい店』.
Korean food culture reveals the ambience of people’s lives
—Doenjang and ganjang both have a strong salty flavor and a bean-like aroma. Could you explain to us about the jang, the fermented seasoning?
Kim Suehyang: One scholar stated that the food in the Korean Peninsula is 120 percent fermented to emphasize that the distinctive feature of all sauces is primarily due to the fermentation of soybeans. Soybean koji called meju, which is a brick of boiled soybeans inoculated with various wild bacteria such as Bacillus subtilis, is placed in a hangari (earthenware jar) along with salt and water. The jar is positioned in the sunniest spot of the house, exposing it to sunlight, rainwater, air, and wind. The liquid strained after fermenting, incorporating various wild bacteria during the fermentation process, becomes ganjang, while the remaining solid is transformed into doenjang. The complex flavors generated through the amalgamation of diverse strains during the fermentation process characterize these condiments. Jang is an indispensable condiment and it is a lump of enzymes rich in soybean proteins.
Cooked and seasoned vegetables are called suche (ripe greens). To get the nutrients from the vegetables efficiently, namul is dressed with garlic, green onions, and jang. Finally, a few drops of sesame or perilla oil and roasted sesame powder are added on top. When all of these ingredients are mixed, it brings out the umami flavor.
In Japan, most people seem to think that namul is seasoned vegetables, however, it is a general term to describe edible plants on the Korean peninsula. Traditionally, vegetables, grasses, and fermented foods are combined in a well-balanced manner to efficiently obtain the necessary nutrients. For example, all plants beneficial to humans, with mugwort and ginseng at the top of the list, have been used as food and medically as traditional Korean medicine.
—In South Korea, I saw rows of large hangari (earthenware jars) in the gardens of temples and ancient palaces. In Japan, fermented foods are kept in a cool, dark place and minimize exposure to air as much as possible, but in South Korea, jars are placed outside, some with glass lids. What are the differences in ingredients and production methods?
Suehyang: The hangari is designed in such a way that airflow can enter through the lid of the jar or the lids can be changed to glass ones to allow light to mix with all the bacteria in the air. On the Korean peninsula, each household made fermented foods using these jars in their own way. Each household had its own koji culture that made full use of the bacteria unique to each family, and homemade fermented foods were indispensable in ceremonies to honor ancestors. Literature shows that from the Goguryeo period, the taste of jang on the Korean peninsula was well known and highly regarded for its high fermentation techniques. That means the peninsula was blessed with the techniques to handle bacteria and the climatic environment to make exquisite jang with the wild bacteria from ancient times.
Japanese miso is made from beans, salt, and rice or barley koji, while jang on the Korean peninsula is made from beans, salt, and water. The Japanese use koji mold, however, on the Korean Peninsula, soybeans are steamed, pounded into clumps to prevent air from entering, and then laid on straw to ripen using a wide variety of natural bacteria to make meju (soybean koji). In Japan, wild bacteria was used originally. However it’s more humid in Japan than on the Korean Peninsula, so it was difficult to control the bacteria in the warmer climate. Therefore, there was a business called Moyashiya that managed the koji. They produce the seed koji, in which koji mold is cultured and dried. If the changes caused by the action of microorganisms are beneficial to humans, they are classified as fermentation and if they are harmful, they are considered putrefaction. Misuse of this can pose risks to human life. So each country has developed its way by choosing fermentation suitable for the climate of the country.
Basically, both ganjang and doenjang are made only with soybeans, and the taste is created by a variety of wild bacteria and the natural environment such as climate and temperature. In Japan, miso is added at the end of making miso soup, but on the Korean peninsula, when making soup with doenjang, it is added from the beginning and simmered to bring out the various tastes and flavors contained in it. The same is true for soups made with ganjang, where the diversity of flavors within the ganjang itself serves as a broth. Sprinkling a few drops of ganjang to boiled vegetables is like adding soup stock, which adds depth to the flavor of the vegetables.
—Many people in Japan buy miso and soy sauce from supermarkets and breweries. Do most people still make them at home in South Korea?
Suehyang: Until our grandmother’s generation, which is just a few decades ago, it was common to make jang at home, but this culture is disappearing due to changes in the housing environment and lifestyles. Jang made by masterful elderly women, who made it all their lives, were turned into branded products and are now available for purchase. Factory-made ganjang and doenjang, which have similar production methods to their Japanese counterparts, became common. The ones made with traditional methods and fermented with wild bacteria are differentiated and called Korean ganjang and Korean doenjang . In today’s Korean diet, traditional jang fermented with wild bacteria and factory-made jang coexist.
Some families insist on homemade jang, but it is a declining trend, and the same is true of many restaurants. On the other hand, some wealthy people have their jang made by their housekeepers. While Japanese miso and soy sauce are distributed and recognized overseas, jang from the Korean peninsula is distributed only by a few major manufacturers. The reason for this is the use of wild bacteria. Because it is wild, it is difficult to control, making factory production difficult, time-consuming, and inefficient.
With a few exceptions, such as barley miso from Kyushu and Hatcho miso from Aichi, there is a uniformity in the flavor of Japanese miso. However, Korean jang is difficult to control the flavor, so even if the ingredients are the same, each house has a completely different taste. That is what makes it interesting, but because of the wide range, it is difficult to focus on one and convey a typical flavor. I tell the name of the manufacturer to the people who try jang for the first time at my workshops. Strangely enough, good jang has a common taste of animal protein. With it, it is possible to supplement the umami flavor without chemical seasonings.
—From a fermentation standpoint, are there any other ingredients that you are looking at besides jang?
Suehyang: I have a great interest in beans native to the Korean peninsula, especially those of the genus Glycine. There are so many varieties that I think they may be the starting point of Korean Peninsula’s fermented foods. Since the Japanese archipelago was part of the Asian continent far back, there are many beans that originated in Japan, but the varieties originating from the Korean peninsula are far beyond that.The place of origin refers to where the plant was first cultivated and supplied. The history of beans in the Korean peninsula is very old, and the unique bean sprout culture, which is a home-grown vegetable, has sustained the lives of the people of the Korean peninsula during the long winter months, with Kongnamul being the most famous bean namul.
A distinctive aspect of the culture of the Korean peninsula is people’s strong fixation on plants. In the northern regions and around the border with China, vegetables could not be grown for about six months, and even in Seoul, nothing could be cultivated for at least four to six months a year. Jang, which has a long shelf life and is rich in protein, became a vital nutrient to survive the harsh natural environment and a source of vitamins. From this point of view, jang is a soy culture that people dedicated their lives to build.
−−Jang is made with wild bacteria and beans grown in nature with plenty of sunlight. I learned that the rich food culture of the Korean peninsula was developed and passed down in the family.
Suehyang: When complimenting a restaurant, there is an expression that “you taste the hands (that crafted the food).” Namul is meant to be mixed directly by hand, and they say that the traditional flavor has been nurtured by the hands of the ancestors. The best tool for making tasty food is the hands, and elderly women still use their hands to carefully prepare their dishes. If wild bacteria is also mixed in with the food, then the “taste of hands” could be the taste of the bacteria of the family. Sadly, many restaurants are now forced to cook with gloves, which marks a departure from the hands-on approach of the past.
Eating Korean food is about sensing the hands and the warmth behind the dishes
−−Fermentation is also connected to alcohol. Could you tell us about the history?
Suehyang: The Korean Peninsula had a culture of home brewing, where sake was made at home before the Japanese occupation. Back then, the Japanese government made it illegal to brew sake at home or in local communities, and the sake production was regulated by the Japanese government. Shortly after WWII, the Korean War broke out, leaving the country in destitution. The Korean government banned the use of rice to make sake, which led to the decline of traditional sake brewing.
However, over the past couple of decades, through the efforts of many people, home-brewed alcohol has come to attract attention as a cultural heritage of the Korean peninsula. This is thanks to the valuable brewing techniques and wisdom that have been passed down in secret within the family through the turbulent times.
−−Do people still make fermented foods at home despite their busy schedule?
Suehyang: Fermented foods are once again attracting attention, and since home brewing is legal in South Korea, making makgeolli was all the rage during the pandemic. If you break it down into generations, those in their 60s and 70s have inherited the traditional art of fermentation, and they value the culture of fermenting foods at home. Those in their 40s and 50s have inherited some cooking methods including how to prepare, but are less familiar with making kimchi and the fermentation culture. The parent-child relationship on the Korean peninsula is unique, and it is not uncommon to see parents in their 60s and 70s cooking for their children in their 30s and 50s, so this environment is influencing the way each generation interacts with the fermented food culture.
I am a Zainichi living in South Korea. As a third-generation, who grew up in Japan, I can step back and have an overview of the fermented food culture of the Korean peninsula, as well as delving deeper into it. I was fascinated by the diversity and depth of the fermented foods of the Korean peninsula that I encountered when I started living in South Korea.
In the midst of all this, I am worried that the diverse wisdom and techniques to make fermented foods held by the women of the Korean peninsula will disappear. Experts know the importance of fermented culture, but to make as many people aware of it as possible, I run a cafe that specializes in fermented foods, and I continue to research and revive local dishes, and hold study sessions. I will continue my activities so that the flavors created by hand, which is based on fermentation unique to the Korean peninsula, will not be lost.