Many of East Asia’s best known foods, such as soy sauce or kimchi, are the result of carefully perfected recipes that ferment raw ingredients with yeasts, molds and bacteria to create wonderful flavors. However, the original homemade or artisan versions of these products, often made in a myriad of regional varieties, are increasingly being lost to industrial brands. To draw attention to this loss, Korean Slow Food members organized the “Asian fermented foods and food culture’ conference on September 14.
“Korean, Japanese and Chinese cultures each have a rich tradition of fermented foods, with key products that are known to the world, however they also share the same problems of traditional artisan production, which means quality healthy products are being replaced with processed imitations,” said Soo Jin Park, Slow Food Busan Convivium leader and organizer of the conference that included participants from each country.
During the one-day conference, producers spoke about their life as master food artisans and the value of fermented foods in their national cuisines, the death of which means the extinction of a part of the local history and culture. They also discussed the struggle many artisans face to make a living today, making it even more difficult for them to focus on passing on their knowledge.
“One of the issues shared across the three countries is that young generations today tend to prefer western or pre-prepared food and are therefore losing cooking skills and an interest in traditional food,” says Soo Jin. “This is because of changes to the food system, but also because we don’t focus on educating youth about traditional food at home or in schools and training institutes”.
One exception in Korea is kimchi, a fermented cabbage dish served with most meals, which Soo Jin believes more people still prefer to make rather than purchase ready-made. “We Koreans cannot imagine the table without kimchi and we value the unique flavor of our family recipes and regional variations. Many Korean families still prepare a stock of kimchi before winter, which was done traditionally to preserve a source of vitamin C”.
Production of other fermented Korean products is being lost more rapidly to industrial methods however. Artisan producer Gi Soondo, spoke during the conference about dwenjang, a fermented soybean paste that is considered one of the essential sauces of authentic Korean cuisine, traditionally made with soybeans and brine only. However, the many factory-made variants contain significant amounts of wheat flour, as do most modern soy sauces, such as Korean ganjang.
China and Japan’s great traditions of fermenting were represented at the conference by Deng Yongsheng, a traditional Chinese rice wine producer, and Yasuhisa Serizawa who spoke about his life making Japanese dried bonito. This traditional soup stock made from dried and fermented fish is essential to many national dishes but is being rapidly replaced by quick artificial alternatives. The Slow Food Ark of Taste catalogue includes other Japanese fermented fish products, including Shottsuru fish sauce, Kusaya dried fish and Nare-zus fish sushi.
“We hope to generate interest in the rediscovery of the values of traditional local food, including fermented food, in Asian countries, and create awareness of the urgency of saving these food cultures,” says Soo Jin. “We also hope this event has helped set the stage for building relationships between Slow Food networks in China, Japan, and Korea to share ideas and future collaborations”.
Launched in 2009, Slow Food in Korea organized their first regional event in 2011, bringing together the Slow Food network from 13 countries across Asia and Oceania for the conference ‘Food Diversity and the Development of Organic Food’.
Read about Slow Food Shanghai’s trip to a traditional soy sauce producer earlier this year.
Photo: Korean cuisine, courtesy Slow Food Busan