Beans, Beans, Beans in Korea
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 ever encountered some people that might have looked a bit unruly or dangerous and you suspected they might have spent time in prison. There is a way of asking them instead of asking them obviously. You could ask, “how long did you eat beans and rice?” If that person spent time in prison, they would know what you meant and might answer 3 months, 1 year, 10 years etc because a long time ago prisoners were only given rice while in prison.
Now the most important bean in Korea is the soybean but in its regular form, it is nothing special and they are actually quite inedible. However, when the soybean is transformed using artisanal techniques, it becomes a miraculous and versatile ingredient.
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 clay pots filled with salted water and charcoal for filtering to make soy sauce. After the soy sauce has finished fermenting, the bean paste and soy sauce are separated. The soy bean paste, called doenjang is one most widely used sauces in Korea. It is used in many soups, stews, pickles and side dishes.
Doenjang chiggae or soybean stew is made from soybean paste, vegetables such as onion, zucchini, chilies, potatoes and sometimes with clams or crab. This dish can be at any meal including breakfast.
In Korea, the city of Paju is famous for their jangdan soybeans. They are recognized throughout Korea for having the most nutritious and flavorful beans. For centuries the beans have been served to royality.
Paju which is located near the DMZ were probably the first in Korea to want unification, but their motivation was more about “beans” than politics. The land near the DMZ, the area famous for the jangdan beans, was a restricted area. In 1973, Park Chung-hee lifted the ban and farmers were again allowed to farm. Of course, farmers were quite hesitant at first. For years production was slow. A yearly soybean festival helped build awareness, but the major push for this area was the “Sintoburi” or “Buy Local Movement.”
Beans are important in Korea and they are very healthy. The Sunchang region of Korea is famous for their artisanal skills of making bean pastes and sauces. Research by the Korean food institute has shown that bean pastes have cancer fighting attributes and can help people live longer, healthier lives. Of the 32,000 people that live in the Sunchang area there are dozens of people that are over 100 years old and there are even more in their 90's.
I will leave with one more story about beans.
On Tongji, the Winter’s Solstice, Koreans eat bowls of red bean porridge with rice balls in it to scare away bad luck spirits. The red color scares away all the dark spirits, so the days will become lighter again. They also will break walnuts and chestnuts with their teeth. The sound is supposed to also scare away these spirits.
You'll also see these red beans in the center of rice cakes and on top of shaved ice desserts called patbingsu.
Beans are an important part of Korea so go out and eat some today for your health and for good luck.