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Jang: ‘The Very Definition of Korean Culture’

We are sitting in one of the thematic conference rooms at the Sempio Foods Company research and development (R&D) center in Osong, south of Seoul, South Korea. Byung-serk Hurh, Sempio’s research director, is drawing a large cooking vessel on a white board as he tries to explain how Jang is made.

In one wing of the R&D complex, lab workers quietly come and go. They move from the labs to a large digital library-like room, where they sit while compiling data. In the other wing are offices and conference rooms designed in a variety of themes, such as a forest, a swimming pool, and even a giant produce farm with lettuce growing from the ceiling.

Sempio is South Korea’s oldest and most renowned commercial brand of soy sauce with the world’s largest soy sauce manufacturing facility. The food manufacturing company also produces a long list of sauces, pastes, and other flavorings found on South Korean grocery shelves.

The name Sempio means “spring,” as in a natural water spring. The company uses natural spring water in making soy sauce and other products. Koreans were making soy sauce at home as far back as the Unified Silla Kingdom around the year 683, when it was counted among the wedding gifts to the royal family.

As western manufacturing processes were introduced in the last century, South Koreans began buying soy sauce instead of making it at home, and Sempio’s introduction after 1946 of its standard use of soybeans, salt, and pure water appealed to all of the country’s regions and tastes.

Before Hurh took to the white board, we viewed a short film about Jang that was prepared for a food expo last year in Spain. “Jang is more than an ingredient,” it said. “Jang is the very definition of Korean culture.”

Until very recently, however, Jang has been almost unknown outside of Korea. Unlike Japan’s miso and other Japanese and Chinese fermented soy products, Jang is only now making its appearance on a world stage.

Cheonggukjang, the thicker Doenjang, and the longest to make, Gochujang, are coming in for uses beyond traditional Korean dishes as flavorings that do not rely on sodium and artificial additives.

On the white board, Hurh is showing how Doenjang is made from boiling dried soybeans that are then stone-ground into pieces and formed into blocks call meju.

The blocks are exposed to the sun or other heating source. Dried rice plants are attached to the surface of the blocks, resulting in fermentation. Bacteria (Bacillus subtilis) reproduce, consuming the soybean protein and water in the meju.

After about three months, the meju are put into large traditionally shaped pottery jars for more fermenting, just as milk becomes yogurt through a similar process. Liquids and solids are separated during fermentation. The liquid is soy sauce and the solid is Doenjang.

Making Gochujang takes longer, with fermentation in the big earthen pots taking as long as three years. Red chilies, glutinous rice, soybeans and salt are the ingredients.

Hurh acknowledges that all this fermenting and the time involved means that there are plenty of “critical control” points to watch during the process. For the record, Sempio was the first in South Korea to have Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans approved for all its sauces and pastes.

As the commercial brand most associated with three types of traditional flavoring products – Cheonggukjang, Doenjang and Gochujang – most associated with Korea, Sempio was an early target for the South Korea National Food Cluster known as Foodpolis.

South Korea’s food manufacturers need to export to grow. Already one of the world’s top-10 traders, South Korea has in recent years inked free trade agreements with 47 countries representing 61 percent of world GNP.

The Foodpolis strategy is to put more South Korean food products like those made by Sempio on tables in Japan, China and beyond, including the United States and Europe.

(Editor’s Note: Dan Flynn recently visited South Korea as a guest of Foodpolis, the National Food Cluster.)

© Food Safety News
  • David Sternlight

    Much commercial Gochujang sold in the US is an adulterated product containing corn syrup or corn sweetener, wheat, and often MSG, unlike the description here.. Buyers should read the ingredients list and be vigilant,

  • pawpaw

    Dan,
    After our 5 month sabbatical in Korea, the two foods we brought back in our luggage were 2 jangs (including Kochujang), and dried sheets of our favorite seaweed. We realized we couldn’t do certain Korean foods at home without jang. (BTW, in the sweep of history, red pepper is a very recent intro to Korean and Asian foods, coming from the new world thru the Philipines around 1900, so I’ve read.)

    We exclusively shopped in Korea’s fresh markets, either while living in Seoul or traveling widely. Even with 4 young children, we didn’t come down with a single case of food infection or intoxication during our time there. Nicols Fox advice on traveling with children helped, as did traditional Korean methods which killed pathogens while cooking and kept the food very hot.