Meet grand master Ki Soon-do, a 10th generation matriarch of a family that has been making jang—fermented sauces—for over three centuries. She shares her experience making this basic Korean ingredient
When Ki Soon-do got married in 1972, it was not just a relationship she was sealing. Being wife of the eldest son in a traditional jang-making family, she was expected to inherit her mother-in-law’s recipes and be responsible for preserving the family’s three-century-old jang legacy.
This was a craft she immersed herself in and spent the last 45 years honing. In 2008, she was named Korean traditional food grand master No. 35, specialising in jingang, her five-year aged soy sauce. The grand master certification is one of the highest honours for traditional food producers in Korea, and it is a title she wears with pride.
Grand master Ki is based in Jeollanam-do, southwest Korea, a region known as a gourmet’s paradise, rich in produce ranging from exquisite bamboo, salt, pear, melon, green tea, barley, garlic, seaweed, octopus, abalone, dried yellow Corvina, and shiitake mushrooms. In Damyang, where her house-fermentation site is located, an annual Namdo Food and Culture Festival is held every autumn. Here, she has easy access to the natural ingredients required to produce quality jang.
Wine & Dine caught up with her when she was in town for a two-day Taste of Asia event organised by the Employment and Employability Institute (e2i), Leigh Atelier and their partners.
What kind of products do you make?
We make ganjang (soy sauce), doenjang (fermented soy bean paste), cheonggukjang (fast-fermented bean paste) and gochujang (fermented red pepper paste)—even some strawberry gochujang. We also produce some rice sikhye (traditional Korean beverage made with rice and malted barley).
What’s the significance of jang?
They say the taste of a house’s ganjang shows the taste of their food. Back then, noble families passed down one jar with their best soy bean sauce from generation to generation, using it only for special occasions, weddings, celebrations or ceremonies to pay respects to ancestors.
Your family has one jar of soy sauce that has been preserved for more than 350 years?
Yes, I inherited it from my mother-in-law. It’s a very precious jar that we take care of very carefully. Whenever I get an excellent sauce, I add it to the jar. I don’t usually sell the soy sauce from this jar. But recently, due to requests, we sold one bottle in Korea through Shinsegae department store. For 500ml, it was US$3,000 (compared to the usual 300ml bottle of soy sauce which goes for US$8).
How would you describe your special five-year aged jingang?
It has a deep flavour but it is not too salty. After it has been aged five years, the saltiness goes away and instead deepens and develops deeper flavour. In Korea, hospital patients who can’t eat complicated dishes usually like to eat plain rice with our jingang.
What’s the basic process for making jang?
It takes at least 10 months, and you can only do it once a year. We begin around November of each year but the timing varies. First you have to harvest the soy beans, cleanse, boil, process and mould them into “meju” or fermented soy bean blocks. Then we dry the meju, tie them with straws and ferment them in fermentation rooms made of red clay bricks for about a month before we age them in jars. We place the meju in hangari (large clay earthen jars) with Jeollanam-do’s pure water and bamboo salt—which we make ourselves by roasting bay salt from the west coast in winter bamboos at high temperature—charcoal, red pepper and jujube. Fermentation is best achieved when there is an ideal level of sodium in salt water. After an aging period ranging 45 to 60 days, we separate them into ganjang and doenjang, and may age them further for specific types of jang.
Why do you use a ‘red clay’ fermentation room to ferment the meju and later age them in clay earthen jars?
The red clay naturally maintains ideal moisture level and releases far-infrared radiation to help in the fermentation process. The meju is then fermented within a traditional breathable hangari because temperature and moisture level must be maintained for meju to be fermented well. Ideal fermentation is not reached using glass, plastic or stainless steel jars. The meju must be observed and closely cared for for about a month.
What’s the greatest challenge you’ve faced making jang?
Actually it’s a constant challenge. You can only start the process for making jang once, so I have to pick a good day to start making the meju. Traditionally, we determine the auspicious day according to the Korean zodiac. On top of that, everyone involved has to have a pure mind that day. I also wouldn’t allow anyone who has been to a funeral recently to attend.
Why is jang from Jeollanam-do considered one of the best?
The quality of the jang we make is influenced by the seasons; nature helps us make the best jang in Korea. Here in Damyang, we have good weather, beautiful bamboo trees that we use to make our bamboo salt, natural raw ingredients, and the space to accommodate very large fermentation jars. Large fermentation jars help a lot in the fermentation process to make good ganjang or doenjang. Most of all, we take the time to make our jang the traditional way, to thoroughly understand each ingredient to be used in fermentation in correlation with the changing weather. In fact, we are one of the first designated slow cities in Korea. People appreciate that tradition is well-kept in this region and it is known for having the best food in Korea.
Gisoondo Korea Traditional Food Store; 154-15, Yucheon-gil, Changpyeong-myeon, Damyang-gun, Jeollanam-do, South Korea; Tel: +82 61 383 6209