Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Dwenjang Soup (된장 국)

Dwenjang, also spelled doenjang, is a fermented soybean paste. Sounds totally gross, right?

Yes, it does, but it's not! It's delicious, like a very concentrated and super fermented version of miso. It's like miso on steroids. Because I grew up on dwenjang rather than miso, I still prefer the stronger taste of dwenjang- miso doesn't quite do it for me. It's a good thing I like it, because it is one of my father's favorite soups. He loves all types of soup- he's very Korean that way- but this has to be in his top five.

My mom's enormous jar o' dwenjang is running low. I realize that it looks less than pretty thanks- it's the price of deliciousness, I'm afraid!

Last Sunday, my mother made an enormous vat of dwenjang guk (soup- remember miyeok guk?) that had to feed thirty. She fed thirty, all right, with soup to spare.

I didn't really think to take photos until pretty late, so I scrambled and clicked whenever I remembered to (I was working from home on Sunday morning when this was going on). It explains why there are not that many photos.

Cooking Korean is where I learned to scorn recipes. Like most Korean dishes, this one is all about 손 맛, which literally translates to "hand flavor." (손=hand, 맛=flavor (or taste), pronounced "sohn-maht") 손 맛 is an expression that sort of indicates whether or not a cook was born with a sense of flavor. Some people, no matter what recipe they use or what ingredients they buy, never become good cooks. They just don't have the knack for it. Koreans call that knack "hand flavor" or "hand taste." You either have flavor in the palm of your hand, or you just don't.

This type of recipe definitely calls for 손 맛. If you can't gauge this soup by its color, viscosity, smell, or taste, it won't be quite right. There are no precise measurements to be had because it's impossible to give them. Each batch of dwenjang is different- soybeans vary from crop to crop, making the concentrated paste vary even more, and you never know how the combination of vegetables will taste, or how watery those vegetables will be, thereby diluting the soup.

I'm being overly dramatic. Even if you don't necessarily have great flavor in your hands, this soup will turn out fine. Why? Because it is so easy to fix! Too salty? Add more water or vegetables! Too bland? Add more dwenjang! Run out of dwenjang? Add some soy sauce!

My mother, of course, being from the city of food, has ample flavor in her capable hands, so her soup is delicious. Mine has never been as good, no matter what I do to it. Darn that mother of mine!

Dwenjang Soup (된장 국)

Water or broth (chicken or beef)
Vegetables, assorted
Beef, pork, or chicken, if desired

(Shockingly short list, I know)

Mom, being the Korean version of Martha Stewart, made her own beef broth on Saturday night. This broth can be used for any number of recipes and a countless number of soups (one of my favorites involves this broth and little more than daikon cut in big chunks with some scallion and garlic). I'm not totally clear on how this broth is made, but the outcome is a large pot full of broth, a big pile of tender beef, and an obscene amount of fat that was skimmed off.

For this batch (it probably ended up being 40 servings for people that eat on the hearty side), the bulk of the vegetables came from three heads of Napa cabbage. Napa should be heavy for their size and cleanly white where the leaves are thickest. Check the bottom where the leaves connect to the core- if it's dried out or too yellowed, the cabbage isn't going to be good. To choose a head of Napa, take two of similar size and hold one in each hand. Which feels heftier? The heavier one is better!

Shred the cabbage into a big bowl (our multi-purpose bowl that we use for lots of things- the same one we used while making kimchi). My mom shreds the cabbage by taking apart the leaves and holding them by their thick end (the white end, not the leafy green end). She uses a small, sharp knife to cut a little slash through the thick end of the stalk and then rips- it yields much more natural-looking strips of cabbage and is very fast to do, unlike chopping four heads of cabbage.

All the shredded cabbage, looking quite innocent and pretty. By the way, that flowered tray that the whole heads of cabbage were resting on? My parents have had it for at least twenty years. It's made out of something that looks like fiberglass (the bottom of it has those hatch-marks that I associate with fiberglass) but is lightweight and indestructible. I love this tray. If my mom still has it by the time I get married, I am totally sneaking it out of her house.

The beef broth should be warming on the stove while the cabbage is being torn apart. Add the cabbage. Though a lot of people skimp on the solid foods in soup, my mother has always been very generous (in Korean, she has 넓은 손, or wide hands- a phrase used to describe someone that has no problem giving things away) in that regard, and she told me that when making dwenjang soup, the raw vegetables should fill up the entire pot. 

The dwenjang is blurry! I only took one picture, so it's making appearance despite its focus problems. I think there was another scoop added to the soup- not as much as this initial dollop, but a fair amount. The soup should be pretty hot at this point. It doesn't need to be boiling, because it won't be- the addition of the vegetables will have brought down the temperature below boiling.

Stir. Like curry, dwenjang needs to melt into the liquid. You really don't want clumps of this stuff in the final product. Unlike curry, however, dwenjang is soft and much more willing to slump into liquid form.

After just a minute or so, the dwenjang is no longer a scoop of paste, it's more like a slurry. And it starts smelling yummy.

The dwenjang's been completely incorporated into the soup after a few minutes. The color should be similar to miso soup, but a bit darker. For Korean food, I can smell the saltiness of a dish. I don't quite know how to describe it, but as I cook, I can smell if something is well-seasoned or not. I can't do this with any other type of cuisine but Korean, so I'm forced to admit that this must be something acquired through vast exposure to certain dishes.

The cabbage needs to cook down until the white stalks are soft. Bean sprouts, on the other hand, take no time at all. So while the cabbage cooks and the dwenjang and beef broth become intimate with one another under a closed lid, my mother washed a huge amount of bean sprouts- another of my father's favorite foods.

This basket is too big to fit into the sink. It's perched on top of the sink. And this isn't even the full amount of bean sprouts! In all fairness, bean sprouts are mostly water and cook down to a paltry sum.

The bean sprouts go in, the soup is given a stir, and then the lid goes on. And no one is allowed to touch or peek or- land alive!- open the pot until it has come to a boil. I don't remember why this isn't allowed, I just know that we were forbidden- forbidden- to open the lid of a pot of soup in its last boil until it had, indeed, come to a boil. I'm sure there's a perfectly acceptable explanation, but I'm also pretty sure this is tradition. And something superstitious, probably.

Fresh jalapenos are sliced and tossed in after the soup has safely reached a boil. For our family, my mom leaves them in. When feeding a large group of people that includes small children, the peppers need to be navigated around or just fished out. The beef, braised or boiled or whatever in the process of making the broth, was torn and added to the soup at the end- this was made in the morning and not consumed until past 2:00, so it was reheated just before serving with the beef included but without the jalapenos.

This soup is so good. It's perfect fall-weather food: warm, filling, strong, rich, and very deep. It's Wednesday and I feel like I haven't had it in months when it's only been three days. I like it ladled over a bowl of sticky rice (an example of 국밥, a quasi-category of food- literally, "soup rice").

And now I want dwenjang jjigae, a stew made with dwenjang that is even heartier than the soup. Plus, it has tofu. I love tofu. I love tofu even more when it's been stewed in dwenjang.

On an un-food-related note, I'm Korean-American! Can you tell??

I received a Facebook message one day from this girl with an awesome name (hi, Miss Lee!) who asked me to submit my profile to a new website dedicated to Korean-Americans. I was skeptical because ... well, because when a stranger asks you to do something online, unseemly things happen. 

I browsed the website absently and then noticed that there was someone I knew! He had submitted his profile! I sent him a message and he replied, completely vetting the online project. He knows one of the co-creators and said that I should definitely participate. So I did. And November 18 will be mine on this website for as long as it's up: I Am Korean American.

I'm happy to be on the website, even if I did pick a crap photo (it was the only one I had!).


Diana E. November 19, 2009 at 5:09 AM  

Except that EVERY Korean I know thinks their own mom's cooking is 손맛! I mean... Korean women are often really good cooks, but not all of them can be amazing, you know?

jeanny November 19, 2009 at 11:06 AM  

I think that's normal! 손맛 is all about personal preference, and what could a person prefer more than food prepared by the hands that raised them?

Although, I promise, my mom's cooking is splendid. :)