If you were unable to get the gochujang in the ready-made container, would you be able to make it using some more common ingredients, say ones found at your average health food store? Do you think it could be approximated by mixing soy miso and hot harissa?
First of all, a huge, honking NO to the abominable recipe involving miso and harissa. You may as well be working on getting dogs to mate with cats. Good lord, have you no respect for the natural order of things?
The other question, however, deserves more attention. Can one make gochujang with common ingredients found at a regular health food store? This may surprise people, but the answer is yes--as long as you have several months to spare. In order words, obtaining the ingredients is not the hard part; it is the skill and patience it takes to create the finished product.
Even if you only buy gochujang from the store (as vast majority of Koreans do,) it would be helpful to know just how that sauce is made. A lot of people, for example, do not know that gochujang and soy sauce are related. If you didn't know that either, read on; you might find this interesting.
Meju: the Daddy
Everyone who has had gochujang knows that it is a type of paste. But what is the paste made out of? Answer: beans--fermented soy beans, to be more precise. Thus, in order to make gochujang, you have to start by fermenting some beans. Through long historical experience, Koreans developed the best way of fermenting beans. This is done by creating meju [메주], a block of ground beans. Both dwenjang and gochujang are made from meju, which makes meju the daddy of them all.
To make a meju, start by soaking soybeans in water for 12 hours or more. After the soybeans are soaked, boil them in high heat until the water comes to boil, then in medium heat, for approximately two hours until the beans are soft. Drain the beans until they are dry. While the beans are still warm, bring the softened beans into a mortar, and mash them with a pestle.
|Mashing the boiled soybeans into paste|
With the mashed soybeans, form a solid block. This block is called meju. A meju can be as large as a big brick, but it can be smaller. Koreans would usually use a frame, in which the mashed soybeans are stuffed, to create a block. But it is fine to just use your hands. (Aside: meju is also an old timey slang term for an ugly face.)
|Monks and visitors of Daeheung Temple, making meju. One can see the|
frame for making meju out of the soybean paste, which is in the tub.
Once the blocks are made, they have to be dried. Place the meju at a sunny location with plenty of ventilation, and dry them for seven to ten days. Then comes the exciting part--the fermentation. Place the dried meju in a warm room (around 77 to 83 degrees) for around two weeks, which is usually enough time for the mold to grow on its surface. Ideally, you want to use straws made from rice stalks to place the meju, as the microbes that make the best meju tend to live in those straws.
|Meju with fresh mold beginning to grow on the surface|
It takes time for meju to fully ferment. Traditionally, Koreans would hang the meju with mold from the roof, and let it ferment for several months. Fresh soybeans are harvested in the fall, which means the meju hangs and ferments throughout the winter.
|Hanging the meju to ferment.|
Intimidated by this process? You should be. Like many other fermented foods like wine and cheese, this process requires delicate care. One misstep and the batch can be ruined. The process is so delicate that traditionally, Koreans had a series of elaborate rituals surrounding the sauce-making. A traditional Korean family would select a day of good fortune for making the sauce. For three days before the sauce-making day, the lady of the house would not leave the house, and refrain from having sex. For three weeks after the sauce-making day, the household members were not allowed to attend a funeral.
But if you live in Korea, you're in luck--all this can be skipped because there are many places that sell meju powder, i.e. powder made up of meju blocks that already finished fermenting. Although if you really didn't want to invite your date upstairs, you can always say: "Sorry, I am making gochujang tomorrow."
(More after the jump.)
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Making Soy Sauce
"Wait, what? I thought we were making gochujang!" Relax--in order to get to gochujang, we have to go through soy sauce (ganjang [간장] in Korean) first. So let's press on.
First, clean the meju with a brush, in order to take off all the dust and mold that it accumulated for the last several months. Then dry the clean meju in the sunlight for two or three days to disinfect. Prepare a jar and place the clean meju. For additional flavor, add dried peppers and dates on top. Then fill jar with salt water--four parts water, one part salt.
|The delicious fermentation process|
The meju in the salt water solution should ferment for another 40 days. The lid should be kept on for the first three days. Then on sunny days, the lid should be kept open to give the warmth necessary for the microbes to grow. (Obviously, the lid should be closed on rainy days.)
The salt water that absorbed the flavor from the fermented meju blocks is ... soy sauce. After 40 days, drain the soy sauce and use a sieve to clear out any particle. Boil the freshly collected soy sauce once to kill the microbes and enhance the flavor.
We are now about four months into the process, but we still need another month for dwenjang. After soy sauce is drained from the jar, the softened meju blocks should be mashed into paste. To enhance the flavor, add some of the soy sauce back into the mashed paste.
The mashed paste should go back into the jar, then covered by a layer of salt. Use the same method--i.e. opening the lid when sunny--to ferment the paste for another month or so. Ta-da! You have your dwenjang.
|Freshly made dwenjang.|
One note: if you dared to actually try this process, you might notice that the flavor and consistency of homemade dwenjang are dramatically different from the store-bought kind. The mass produced dwenjang adds carbohydrates and other microbes to make the fermentation process go faster, which significantly changes the flavor profile. This is one of the reasons why TK insists that there is no real Korean food outside of Korea: because even in the U.S., home of 1.7 million Korean Americans, there is virtually no dwenjang made with the traditional method.
Finally, Making Gochujang
Gochujang is not just spicy; it is also sweet. But how? Korea never had the climate for growing sugar. In order to create sweets, Koreans processed barley. So this is the first step in making gochujang.
Get whole barley grains, wash them well and soak them for a day. After being soaked, drain the barley grains and keep them covered with a damped cloth. Repeat this process for several days. Around the fifth day, the barley grains begin the sprout. At this point, separate the barley grains and dry them.
|Barley grains with sprouts|
The sprouted barley is called yeotgireum [엿기름]. The sweet flavor is in the sprout of the barley; this is how Koreans traditionally made different types of Korean desserts, like sikhye [식혜, a type of rice punch.]
Soak the yeotgireum in warm water, which causes the sugar to dissolve out of the sprouts. Prepare flour (ideally made of sweet rice), and boil the flour so that in turns into a thick paste. Strain the yeotgireum water and thin the paste.
Then comes the fun part: putting in pepper powder [고춧가루, gochugaru]. Put in plenty to make sure the paste is actually spicy. Finally, in the pepper-rice flour-sweet water concoction, add mashed up meju. Put the entire batch into the jar, and ferment in the sun. It can be ready as quickly as in a week, but it may ferment for years.
|Fermented gochujang in the jar. The top part is dried into a crust,|
but the inside has that familiar look.
(Note: professional sauce makers actually use a different type of meju that is specifically created for gochujang. That is, they make different types of meju for dwenjang and gochujang.)
So, can you make gochujang with some items from the health food store? Absolutely. At the end of the day, all you need are soybeans, barley, salt, rice flour--and only about six months of your time.
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