Once, every family on Jeju Island made their own fermented soybean paste or jang as it is known locally. With its salty, bittersweet, intense flavor, it is traditionally used to flavor vegetables, meat, fish and soups, and is certainly an acquired taste, even for locals.
“Thousands of types of soybean paste exist, each with a different flavor,” explains Minsoo Kim, fermented soybean paste producer, Slow Food Jeju Island Convivium leader, and board member of Slow Food Korea. Every region has a different way to make it, particularly on Jeju Island, where the volcanic soil provides ideal terrain for the cultivation of a local variety of green soybean, the Pureun kong.
But today production of soybean paste has moved out of the family kitchen and into the factories, Minsoo explains, made, absurdly, with GM soybeans imported from China and the USA. Only around ten small-scale producers still make the paste the traditional way.
According to Minsoo, the flavor is stronger and deeper, with a more pronounced umami sensation than the industrial version. The procedure is also very different. Industrial productions generally use one starter, while traditional will use several natural starters. The fermentation time is also different with industrial products fermenting in less than a week compared for 45 days in the traditional production. The quality, nutritional content and taste are arguably better, but traditional productions can’t compete with industrial versions on price, and consumers often view the industrial version as more hygienic.
So how does the traditional recipe stand a chance of surviving? “The solution right now is education,” says Minsoo. “Education is powerful from my experience. If people learn these things, they change their attitude towards food and immediately make better choices.”
Minsoo and his family have launched an educational project, teaching adults, children, chefs, professionals, and Slow Food members about the local food and culture, starting with fermented soybean paste. “We start to talk about the paste, but then we move onto GMOs, traditional recipes, folk sayings, family and more. After the courses, I see that people are excited to discover this traditional product and they are proud of it.”
Jeju Island fermented soybean paste was the first product from Jeju Island to join the Ark of Taste, a catalogue of at-risk products, and in May 2014 became a Presidium, a project that connects paste producers and soybean growers and actively works to protect and promote the production.