Back in the day, every household would make their own jang, those essential fermented condiments that season just about every dish in Korean cuisine. These days, most people get their jang in a plastic bottle at the grocery store, but there are still keepers of tradition out there, masters who contain the learnings of generations of jang-makers. One of these people, Master Ki Soon-do, has a beautiful fermentation center near Damyang, South Jeolla Province.
Seoyoung, who’s been working in the fermented food world for years, has known Master Ki for several years now and often uses her jang when cooking. While I’d grown to appreciate the balance and finesse of Ki Soon-do jang, I’d still never seen the place where the magic happens. So when two food-obsessed friends, Heena and Michelle, came to Korea this month, we decided to make the trek out together. Michelle is a food photographer and generously sent her photos to Bburi for this post.
Master Ki greeted us with a sampling of jang and foods made with jang: First, three different ages of ganjang (간장, soy sauce), then her doenjang (된장, fermented soybean paste), then her gochujang (고추장, fermented chili paste) and a strawberry gochujang, for fun. “But first is ganjang,” she told us. “Ganjang is the most important. Koreans used to use ganjang in place of salt!” Master Ki is a tall, gracious woman in her late 60s who walks slowly but works quickly, arranging dishes and scooping jang with practiced, fluid movements. “Did you want me to put on a hanbok for this?” she asked us half-seriously and we laughed. She’s used to reporters and television crews coming out to film and photograph her—Ki Soon-do is one of the most respected names in Korean traditional food, but there’s no ego in her manner. She’s here to talk jang, her life’s work since she married into this family that’s been making jang for 300 years. “People need to know that traditional Korean soy sauce and doenjang is made from just three ingredients: soy beans, water and salt.” And time. This last thought went unspoken as we looked out at her life’s work.
Spread out in front of us were hundreds of onggi, the earthenware jars containing the living, breathing jang. “Every region has a slightly different shaped onggi, depending on the weather,” says Master Ki. “In Seoul and up north, they’re slimmer and taller because it’s colder there. But here, our onggi are round and huge, which makes for more delicious jang.” As the jang ferment, the onggi act as natural moisture and temperature regulators, the microscopic pores allowing just the right amount to enter and escape. In other words, onggi are as essential to the Korean kitchen as a frying pan might be to a French kitchen.
It takes over a year, minimum, to make ganjang and doenjang: Fermented bean blocks are soaked in salt water then the solids are separated to ferment and become doenjang, while the liquid is aged as soy sauce. The aging process can last for decades upon decades, though those precious liquids are reserved for ancestral ceremonies. Gochujang is mixture of soy powder, grain syrup, rice flour, chili powder and usually salt, though Master Ki uses soy sauce in her gochujang, resulting in a darker color and deeper flavors. It’s then fermented for a year or longer.
We walked across the grounds, peering inside onggi and breathing in that delicious air. “What are these small stones on the lids for?” Heena asked. One stone for ganjang, we learned, two for doenjang, three for gochujang—a labeling system brilliant in its unobtrusive simplicity: a single glance down a row of onggi and you’d be able tell what they contained in a second. An old white dog with sagging jowls and a limp kept pace with Master Ki, glancing up with careful adoration, while traditional stringed music played on speakers: “It’s good for the jang, it’s good for the people.” I placed my hands against the sun-warmed curved sides of an onggi and it felt like holding a pregnant belly—wondrous things forming inside.
Master Ki Soon-do’s website
Michelle Min’s website