The special sweet, salty, and spicy taste of Korean cuisine is achieved through properly fermented condiments like soybean paste (doenjang), red pepper paste (gochujang), and soy sauce (ganjang).
While it is people who make fermented foods, it is nature that slowly infuses it with deep flavors. Once soybean paste is put into pots (known as jangdok in Korean) after it has been processed by human hands, natural elements such as wind, sunshine, and rain, combined with time, help them ferment. Soybean paste and soy sauce take time to mature, in a similar fashion as good vintage wines.
Various regions of Korea have differing ideas on how best to make these condiments. Jeju is an island located in the southernmost part of Korea, which means the climate is the mildest in the country. The island enjoys the highest-average temperature in Korea. This means a faster fermentation of soybean paste, which can become edible in less than six months — a shorter period compared to the mainland. Uniquely, soybean paste is consumed uncooked on Jeju Island in various ways. If raw soybean paste is dissolved in cold water for example, it becomes the base for Jeju-style cold soup.
Kim Sung-ok, chairperson of the Jeju Gonaechon (chon means village) noticed the high quality of Jeju’s soybean paste when she studied Korean traditional foods. After she majored in food science and human nutrition in university, Kim maintained her interest in Korean fermented foods while teaching at middle and high schools for about 30 years. While visiting a pine grove south of Gonaebong (bong means hill), she found the beans growing around the area to be of a high grade. Important to the fermentation of soybean paste, the area is exposed to plenty of sunshine. Kim then decided to apply for voluntary retirement to study how to make fine-quality Korean fermented products.
She believes first-class jang (jang refers to all kinds of Korean fermented pastes) is achieved when the traditional preparation method is combined with Jeju’s clean environment. Moreover, she believes the soil in Gonaechon, a red clay which is very unusual on Jeju, has a positive affect on fermentation, adding that the pine flower (songwha in Korean) powder from pine trees is also dispersed by the wind into pots where soybean paste is kept and also works as a catalyst for fermentation.
Kim appears to be reaping the rewards of her hard work. Songhwa doenjang (pine flower soybean paste) and jeonbokjang (abalone soaked in soy sauce) won Korea’s Fine Quality Specialty Award and the Korean Tourism Souvenir Award.
In 2010 Jeju Gonaechon opened the cultural experience center with expanded programs to learn how to make soybean paste. Kim said the facility accommodates a maximum of 100 people and the programs are gaining in popularity among tourists, homemakers, and students. If you are a fan of Korean cuisine or just want to learn the art of Korean cooking, visit Jeju Gonaechon during regular weekday hours and sign up for a class.
Learning how soybean paste is made and the environment in which it is aged might not be as fulfilling if one cannot taste the end result. This is why the restaurant Soopsori (which translates as “forest sound”) exists in the entrance of Jeju Gonaechon. All Korean condiments used in Soopsori’s food comes from Jeju Gonaechon. You can also purchase Jeju Gonaechon products there.
Ham Oak-keum, the owner of Soopsori, had been an English teacher for more than 30 years, and she and Kim have known each other as coworkers. Ham opened the restaurant last June after taking voluntary retirement as did Kim. She boasts high-quality cooking made from Jeju agricultural produce and seafood. It is a self-service cafe, where you can have coffee, ice cream, and a number of beverages, all at a price of 2,000 won. If you plan to walk Olle Course No. 15, Soopsori seems like a great stop-over to rest with the selection of foods and drinks, as the restaurant is almost at the course’s end.
On the menu their are various healthy Korean meals including samgyetang (chicken stuffed with rice and ginseng), nokcha namul bibimbap (mixed rice topped with lightly boiled green tea leaves), agujjim (spicy steamed monkfish) and hanjeongsik (Korean table d’hote). Once you satisfy your appetite, a light walk to Gonaebong (Gonae oreum), Hagari lotus pond, or Napeupri Keumsan Park will help with digestion, and offers a beautiful view of the landscape.
Soopsori Located within Jeju Gonaechon, a 25-minute drive from the airport. Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Phone: 064-799-5661, 017-690-5660
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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