How Beans and a Magic Pot Can Create so Much
by Daniel Gray
Pictures of Oegosan Onggi Village courtesy of Korea Tourism http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SI/SI_EN_3_1_1_1.jsp?cid=1342923
Koreans call beans, ‘Meat from the fields.’ A long time ago, meat was a luxury that commoners rarely had a chance to eat. So instead of meat, Koreans cultivated a wide variety of beans to supplement their diet. Beans such as black beans and peanuts were often used to make banchan or side-dishes, but others like wild kidney beans, white beans, and peas were added to rice. Red bean in a sweetened paste was used as a filling for rice cake desserts.
There is even a bit of notoriety about eating rice steamed with beans. If you suspect someone has spent some time in prison, you could subtly ask them, “how long did you eat beans and rice.” If they know what you are suggesting, they’ll tell you how long they were in prison. Also after being released from prison, the first meal would often be a block of white tofu in order to signify they will live a pure and innocent life from that moment after.
Now the most important bean in Korea is the soybean but in its regular form, it is nothing special and they are quite inedible. However, when the soybean is transformed using artisanal techniques and a special slab pottery pot called an Onngi. These clay, slab pottery pots can be made in various sizes that can hold from 500ml to 100 liters. The pots are the perfect vessels for fermenting food for it is waterproof yet porous for air due to the high proportion of sand in the clay. These pots are one of the most important elements in making soy sauce and bean paste that are two very important jangs, or fermented sauces, in Korea.
The most famous area for these pots is at Oegosan Onggi Village in Ulsan where they have hundreds of artisans that make these pots. Many of top sauce and kimchi makers get their pots made here. They say that the clay around the village helps produce the best Onngi pots.
In order to make these jangs, soybeans are first steamed and then formed into large blocks that are as big as a child’s torso. They are wrapped in rice straw, which is rich in healthy bacteria then hung in a warm, humid place or exposed to the sun so it can ferment like cheese. After a few weeks of fermentation, these blocks called meju become the starting ingredients of many of Korean essential sauces called jang.
The fermented blocks, or meju, can first be put into large onngi pots filled with salted water and charcoal for filtering to make soy sauce. These pots are left in the sun and air: two important elements to aide in proper fermentation. After the soy sauce has finished fermenting, the bean paste and soy sauce are separated. The soybean paste, called doenjang is one most widely used sauces in Korea. It is used in many soups, stews, pickles and side dishes. Two famous restaurants that specialize in using these sauces are Hongyongjae and Sandang. A doctor who was suffering from terminal cancer started Hongyongjae. After all western medical treatments failed, he started to use natural foods: especially fermented foods made from fermented soybeans and he was miraculously cured. Chef Jiho Yim, who traveled all over the country to learn Korean food from home chefs and local restaurants, started Sandang. He incorporated all that he learned into making food that was artistic and healthy.
Oegosan Onggi Village