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She didn't have much time to cook, much less make ddeonjang, the fermented soybean paste essential to Korean cuisine both as a condiment and soup base. It's a complicated yearlong process beginning with soybeans soaked for days, then boiled and mashed to form bricks called meju. "Looks like Italian bread," she says. These are tied up with hay and hung in the air outside to dry. The hay stimulates the reproduction of Bacillus subtilis and it starts to stink. After three months, you soak them in brine for another three months, mash them up like potatoes, and let them ferment further. Two more months and you separate the liquid—now soy sauce—and let it sit for another two months.
What you have at the end is an odorless but supremely pungent paste, used as a dip for vegetables, spread on lettuce leaves and wrapped around grilled pork belly, or as a base for ddeonjang jigae. Ddoenjang kicks Japanese miso's teeth down its throat. Vegan? Think commercial soy cheese is an acceptable substitute? Try ddeonjang. Yes, I've smeared it on a baguette and convinced myself it was blue cheese.
Today omma enjoys a comfortable retirement in suburban Richmond, Virginia, and all I have to do is innocently mention some labor-intensive Korean dish and she'll make it. I got a half gallon of her chile-spiked ddeonjang for Christmas, and if I keep sneaking midafternoon spoonfuls like it's peanut butter, it'll be gone in a month.
Unfortunately, the white wide array of commercial ddeonjang filling Korean grocery shelves is garbage, highly emulsified, extended with wheat flour, and miles away from the funky fermented goodness it should be. The closest I've found to homemade can be had at New Chicago Kimchee, your source for all things Korean, fermented, and made with love: kimchee, black garlic, red pepper paste, and ddeonjang's stinkier cousin cheonggukjang. Mrs. Simon Ham's Superchunk ddeonjang is less spicy and pungent, but it's saltier, and the next best thing.
New Chicago Kimchee, 3648 W Lawrence Ave, 773-583-4442