A Lesson in Korean Culinary History

This Christmas, after the mandatory half hour of semi-silent shoveling of food into mouths, we began to discuss the origins of Korean food.
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My family views the dinner table as akin to a cross between a Roman Forum on crack and a racetrack. The racetrack comes from the fact that my Korean family eats as quickly as possible to get it out of the way. The faster you eat, the more you can talk. That's where the Roman Forum comes in. Every kind of conversation crosses our dinner table, from politics to religion to education to who is going to win Bridalplasty.

This Christmas, after the mandatory half hour of semi-silent shoveling of food into mouths, we began to discuss the origins of Korean food.

Being the avid cooker and eater I am, I was extremely curious about the origin of one of the most common ingredients in Korean cooking: dwenjang.


Dwenjang is a fermented soybean paste that is used in dwenjang soup. Ok, that's not helpful. It is also often used in soft tofu (soondubu) stew, kim chi stew, served aside your Korean barbeque, and generally all over the Korean menu. In analogy form (I will make this as American as possible): DWENJANG : KOREAN CUISINE :: BUTTER : ANYTHING PAULA DEEN MAKES.

Since I can remember, dwenjang in my house has been found in a glass jar in the very back of the fridge. It's sort of the color of baby poo. (Read: Do not click that link if you intend to eat anytime soon). You can see bits of the fermented soybeans, making it look even more like baby poo, except an older baby, because the baby's eating soybeans, duh.

Imagine my surprise when my father bust out with, "I remember helping my grandmother make dwenjang when I was growing up."

My mind immediately flooded with questions. How? Didn't it smell? Is it easy to do? I thought Korean men didn't cook? ...At least that's what my Korean ex-boyfriend told me.

"It smelled very bad," my dad said amused at my excitement. "We hung the blocks to make dwenjang from the ceilings and let them dry and cover in fungus and ferment. The smell was so terrible. But we lived with it and got used to it."

I imagine it smelled like baby poo.

So, my father explained that his grandmother would buy pounds and pounds of dried soy beans, and coarsely grind them. Then they would boil them and then take that substance and form it into large blocks. He would weave ropes from dried rice plants, tie up the blocks and hang them from their ceiling. Then, months later, once the block was pretty much black and covered in some fungus, which my father describes as also black, they put the blocks into large pottery jars with water and salt. The substance would continue to ferment, and eventually the liquids and solids separate.

And here is the whammy, well at least for me, I was shocked. The liquids are soy sauce! What a process! Thank God for Kikkoman.

Anyway, the solid is dwenjang.

After learning this, I had a couple takeaways.
1. Koreans are... adventurous. Who thinks to eat blocks of beans covered in black fungus after submerging it in water?
2. Koreans are really patient. I can barely wait 2 minutes for the microwave to reheat my chicken teriyaki. 6 months for a block of dwenjang? Sheesh.
3. If my family is ever stranded somewhere without food, I have no reason to worry. I don't know if my dad is a great hunter, but he's already been proven to be an effective gatherer/fermenter.
4. I should stop calling dwenjang "babypoo" at some point.

I hope this has been as enlightening for you as it was for me.

If not, there's always pauladeen.com/recipes.

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