What did the chile pepper say to the fermented block of soybean paste?
Okay, that was really bad. I apologize.
But I didn’t come up with the anthropomorphized cartoon figures. The Gochujang Village of Sunchang did.
All this talk of gochujang brought back memories of our very quick, drop-by visit of Sunchang last fall. Sunchang is a small town in North Jeolla Province and the home of the Gochujang Village, a fairly new development that seeks to capitalize on Sunchang’s historical reputation for some of the best gochujang in Korea. Although it’s often used as part of a brand name, as in Chung Jung Won’s Sunchang Gochujang, it’s really a geographical marker. Chung Jung Won’s Sunchang Gochujang may very well come from Sunchang, but not all Sunchang gochujang is Chung Jung Won Sunchang Gochujang.
We arrived too late to visit the Institute of Sunchang Fermented Soybean Products, where you can take classes on how to make gochujang. But we did walk around the lobby and I bought my favorite stuffed “animal” ever, here shown as Carolyn’s friend. It’s a meju block, made of soybeans that have been boiled and then packed into a block to dry, age, and ferment. If you look closely, you’ll see that Meju has pink cheeks — she is wearing blush!
Afterwards, we walked through the “village,” which was comprised mainly of one or two streets of hanok or traditional houses with curving tiled roofs. Each house sold gochujang, as well as other pickled products made with gochujang. They all bragged that they made 전통고추장, jeontong gochujang, meaning in the traditional way. They all called out for us to come in and try their products. They all looked alike, so we just picked one and barged in.
They above are different types of jangajji, or vegetables and fruit that have been pickled with jang, which can mean ganjang/soy sauce or gochujang/red pepper paste. I wish I remembered what they are. We tasted each and every one, our tongues burning so that by the end, we could barely distinguish one from the other: garlic, plums, persimmons, pumpkin, and chi or wild aster. I loved a gochujang made with maesil plums, also known as ume in Japan. It was very sweet, but it had an interesting astringency that made it noticeably different from any other gochujang I’d ever had.
When we got home, I asked my mom what made Sunchang so famous for its gochujang. She said that the area gets great sunlight, which makes for great chile peppers. I have no idea how it’s possible for one area to get better sunlight than another just a few miles over, but its gochujang was sufficiently prized that the area’s tribute to the king was always in the form of gochujang.
I wonder, as the Korean government works steadfastly on trying to elevate Korean food internationally, why don’t they work on regional designations? France and Spain have standards for wines, jamon iberico, and other famous food products — Korea could set standards for Sunchang gochujang, Chejudo pork, Bongpyeong buckwheat noodles.
Anyway, the modern explanation for what makes Sunchang gochujang great? Watch the ad for Chung Jung Won’s Sunchang gochujang below.
Voice off camera: Hey grandma, how do you make gochujang?
Grandma: You put in rice, barley malt, red pepper powder, you just shove it all in! Growl!
V: Do you put in rice?
G: Of course, you put in rice!
V: But I heard people put in flour.
G: What!?! (Brandishing spoon.) After red pepper powder, the next most important ingredient is rice. Put flour in that?!?! Go away!
Hence, buy this brand of gochujang that promises to be made with rice!