Today the forecast calls for China dust,” our interpreter says cheerfully. A lingering smog often chokes this eastern coast of Korea, though for now the air is bracing, clear. It's December and we've set off predawn from the beach town of Busan, driving north through national parks, past Pohang (a steel town called the “Pittsburgh of Korea” with a Steelers soccer team to match) and ending up in the village of Jukjang-myeon. Our van turns down a long gravel driveway, and we are greeted with the pleasant perfume of burning oak.
Hooni Kim, a Korean-American chef, jumps out to stretch his legs and points at a large building in the distance. Smoke curls out of an open window.
"This is the sign that doenjang season has started," Hooni says, walking toward the plume.
A fermented soybean paste, doenjang is one of three fundamental jangs (or "thick sauces") of Korean cooking. Gochujang gets all the press: fiery, slightly sweet, composed primarily of sweet rice paste and pulverized chile flakes. Ganjang is a lighter type of soy sauce, used to season vegetables. Doenjang is a critical pantry paste, best used in combination with other things, or manipulated during cooking rather than squirted on at the end like a hot sauce. Doenjang is also the key ingredient in ssamjang, the spread found on all Korean barbecue tables—the sauce you're told to slather on the glistening meat that is then wrapped in lettuce leaves with a bit of rice. It's the driving force behind classic soups and stews, and many Koreans eat it daily.
Most of the doenjang we see in America is decidedly mass-produced, imported by the shipping pallet and stacked in K-town supermarkets in ubiquitous brown tubs. At Hooni's restaurant in the Flatiron district of Manhattan, Hanjan, I'd tried a different kind of doenjang. Over a plate of "fresh kill" chicken skewers and a bottle of Mâconnais chardonnay, Hooni introduced me to a brown, puttylike condiment that turned out to be as salty, deeply intriguing, and full of funk as a cave-aged cheese. I'd sampled plenty of doenjang over the years, having written a Korean cookbook and traveled to the country a handful of times. But this one startled me. Tasting it was transporting, spiritual.
Jookjangyeon was founded in 2010 by wine importer Michael Jung. He happened upon jang making after his father had done business with some of the Jukjang-myeon villagers and was sent a couple of jars of doenjang and gochujang as a thank-you.
"I knew it was special from the first time I tasted it," he recalls of his first encounter with the doenjang that changed his life. He soon invested in the villagers' operation, building a state-of-the-art production facility, and started making trips to Europe and the United States to spread the word. He and his wife, Sarah Bue, are hands-on in virtually all aspects of their operation, particularly during the critical December–February production season that we have dropped in on.
"Doenjang is like wine," Hooni had said of this stuff. "Both depend so much on the terroir, and the flavors change and mature over time." It's produced in small batches by traditional means, eschewing any additives and preservatives, aged in clay pots open to the seasons, and prized by those who know the difference between a handmade product and an industrial substitute. And so Hooni and I have made our way here to see the real thing made at the source.
"I've imagined this room and smelled it in the pictures," says Hooni, visiting for the first time during the winter production. We're led into a barnlike space billowing with smoke and steam. In it we find 16 giant iron pots, called gamasot, each 4 feet wide and heated with fires using wood cut from the surrounding forest.
Boiling yellowish-brown soybeans in water—lots and lots of locally grown soybeans—is the first step in making doenjang. At Jookjangyeon they go through around 15 tons a season. Once the soybeans have been boiled for six hours—with a squad of middle-aged village women utilizing nondigital cooking methods and miraculously not burning a single bean in the process—the remaining water is drained away and the mash shaped into toaster-size blocks called meju. These blocks harden like drying cement and are then wrapped in rice stalks (which transfer vital Bacillus subtilis bacteria to the bricks) and hung to air-dry for 15 days at 55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit and 40 percent humidity.
"Mold gets me excited!" Jung yells over the hum of giant fans that run day and night in the meju room. Visitors are required to wear head-to-toe sterile plastic jumpsuits to prevent outside contamination. As with wheels of Comté cheese slumbering in a cave, the white dust that gathers on the surface of the meju blocks indicates that the bacteria has done its job and advanced fermentation is under way—which ultimately translates to profound flavor. In the production of supermarket jangs, meju is speed-aged using high temperature and pressure to cheat time. In some cases whole soybeans are not used at all; instead an extract void of the valuable oil is used with wheat flour and other fillers. "The flour is to fake stickiness and texture," says Bue with a frown. "But in a blind taste test, which we have done, many Koreans know the difference."
At Jookjangyeon, they take aging a step further and trim the rice stalks from the blocks, then age them in a heated room for an additional 22 to 25 days, which produces blue and green molds. Jung's face lights up as he describes them.
"This is like the blooming of the flower," he says about the process he calls three-dimensional fermentation. In doenjang production, the meju blocks are only the first half of the process. For the rest of the story, we need to step out of the aging room and ascend a steep hill to one of the company's jangwon, which in Korean translates to something close to the "garden of sauces."
The wind is swirling and tiny snowflakes start to fall as Jung begins to explain the real jazz of jang making. We are in a field with hundreds of large earthenware pots called jangdok, 2 feet high, filled with doenjang, gochujang, and ganjang and weighing hundreds of pounds each.
"This is a spiritual place for me," Hooni says, standing amidst the field of aging pots. Jookjangyeon has about 3,500 of these vessels scattered throughout the property, each costing about $300 and made of porous, breathable clay. In the hot and humid summer months, salt crystals gather on the outside of the jars so frequently that workers have to wipe them of residue weekly. While I had read extensively about meju production, I was still puzzled as to how exactly the aged bricks were ultimately turned into jang. Each farm has its own method, and some keep the process a secret. Weather, time, and much trial and error. Jung stresses that the location of the jangwon was selected precisely for the availability of sun and breeze, which helps in the years-long fermentation process. I press for more details and lean in close while he describes the methods. (I am later told this was the first time he's discussed them openly.)
Exactly 47 blocks of meju are added to each empty jangdok, along with precisely five red Korean chile peppers and a handful of dried Korean dates called jujubes. At the end, five lumps of charcoal are tossed in for filtration but also, as Jung stresses, "to prevent bad luck."
The pot is filled up with salt water, which has been measured at around 18 percent salinity. For 60 days it sits out in the field, exposed to changes in the atmosphere from clouds and sun to rain and snow. At the end of the period, the liquid, which has turned inky, is drained off and the meju is broken down—like a kid smashes a milk-logged graham cracker at the bottom of a glass. The drained-off liquid is ganjang (Korean soy sauce), which is collected and aged in its own jangdok for up to a year. The solid that remains is doenjang, and once a week for a minimum of one year and up to three, the lid is removed for an entire day and a screen placed over the thick paste so bugs and dust don't collect. I press to find out what this weekly airing-out process is all about, and how specifically it shapes the flavor of the doenjang. "The garden needs its sun," Jung says, vaguely with a smile.
Hooni and I are invited to join the staff for a late lunch in the room with the gamasot. The fires are still roaring and the workers are cooking haemul pajeon, scallion and squid pancakes, atop the same massive iron lids they use while boiling the soybeans. Spread out on the plastic folding table is a bibimbap with seasoned bean sprouts, toasted seaweed, bracken fern, and beef atop nurungji—the toasted rice at the bottom of the pan that resembles Spanish socarrat. And there's a shallow bowl of ssamjang resting next to a platter of raw carrots, radish, and garlic. A plastic garbage can is packed with ice and bottles of water and Korean firewater called soju. In Korea, soju is a necessity at every meal, even when it's followed by the kindling of giant fires.
But Hooni is focused on the brown condiment in the bowl, which he slathers on a leaf of lettuce and pops into his mouth with great pleasure. "I am so happy right now," he says with a raise of the glass. Doenjang, like soju, is a product Koreans take seriously. And this is doenjang worth savoring and toasting. "Gun-bae," says Hooni, before shooting back the soju and slathering ssamjang on another leaf.