[Hallyupedia] Meju (메주)

나확진 / 인턴 차민경 / 2021-12-18 07:00:37
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by Ra Hwak Jin / Cha Min Kyung

 

[ENG] A brick of dried and fermented bean paste


▲  Employees inspect bricks of bean paste drying and ripening at the traditional sauce maker Seoil Farm in Anseong, 77 kilometers south of Seoul, on Dec. 14, 2021. The bricks, known as "meju," and salt, among other ingredients, are put into pots to make the Korean soybean paste "doenjang" and the traditional Korean soy sauce "ganjang." (Yonhap)

 


Meju refers to a square brick of dried soybeans. The bricks, which are produced by pounding, drying and shaping boiled soybeans, are used as a raw ingredient to make Korean soybean paste "doenjang" and the traditional Korean soy sauce "ganjang."

Today, meju is generally shaped like a cuboid, however, according to the Academy of Korean Studies' Encyclopedia of Korean Culture, it is sometimes made in noodles or other forms.

The word "meju" comes up in the "Jilin leishi," a Chinese book on Korea published in the 12th century, and the "Samguk sagi," a historical record on the Three Kingdoms of Korea, indicates that there was soy sauce and soybean paste during the Unified Silla Period, so it is estimated that meju existed before that time period.

In the Doosan Encyclopedia, the origin of meju is traced back between the end of the Iron Age and the early Three Kingdoms Period.

Traditionally, when making meju, boiled and crushed beans are made into lumps and placed on rice straws and dried for two to three days. Then, the bricks are tied with rice straws and attached on shelves in a room or put in large containers with straw laid underneath. The containers are covered with a lid to ferment the brick of beans for two weeks. The meju is later taken out to dry under the sun and put back in the container to ferment it once again.

 

 

▲ Women tie bricks of bean paste with straw to mature them at a food company in Sejong, central South Korea, on Dec. 11, 2020. The bricks, known as "meju," and salt, among other ingredients, are put into pots to make the Korean soybean paste "doenjang" and the traditional Korean soy sauce "ganjang." (Yonhap)


After this process is complete, meju is aged in an earthenware jar with salt water and the substances are used to make soybean paste while the juice is used for soy sauce.

These fermented soybeans made through the conventional methods breed a lot of miscellaneous bacteria and give off a unique scent. In addition, the soybean paste varies in taste since the fermentation aging is incomplete.

Since the 1960s, an improved method of fermenting boiled beans by adding flour has also been used. Meju made from the conventional methods consist of only beans and is used for both soy sauce and soybean paste. However, the improved meju is made separately and differently for soy sauce and soybean paste. Meju produced by the improved technique is well fermented, so it has a less unpleasant smell, but the quality and taste is similar.

 

▲ Women place bricks of bean paste to mature them at a food company in Sejong, central South Korea, on Dec. 11, 2020. The bricks, known as "meju," and salt, among other ingredients, are put into pots to make the Korean soybean paste "doenjang" and the traditional Korean soy sauce "ganjang." (Yonhap)


Until the 1980s, it was common to make fermented soybeans in all households located in the countryside, but nowadays, meju is mostly made in large quantities at food factories and it is not easy to see people make them at home.

◇ Traditional Korean saying with reference to Meju 


Since making meju was considered an ancient tradition in Korea, it is a widely known fact that meju is made up of soybeans. For this reason, there is a Korean saying that goes, "I wouldn't believe you even if you said meju was made with soybeans," which is used when someone is full of distrust of another person.

Of course, in the present day, it is difficult to see the actual process of making meju in person, so a lot of people may not even know whether meju is produced with soybeans or red beans. Nevertheless, this saying is commonly used even today.

 

Recently, a presidential candidate in Korea used this saying to express his doubts of another candidate. In August, former prime minister Chung Sye-kyun said the government's real estate policy lost the public's trust and added, "Even if you say meju is made with soybeans, (the public) won't believe it."

◇ Meju also used to insinuate or insult someone's looks

Meju is often used as an expression to point out an unattractive appearance of someone due to the brick's bumpy and moldy shape as well as its irritating smell. These days, of course, insulting someone's appearance is considered rude and the expression involving meju is typically used to describe oneself.

Lee Nak-yon, a former ruling Democratic Party (DP) chief who was defeated in the party's primary for the 2022 presidential election, once said that one of his nicknames in his younger days was "meju."

Another word that compares an unpleasant appearance with meju is "옥떨메·[ok-tteol-me]." After South Korean novelist Park Bum-shin published the word "oktteolme," which is an abbreviated word for the phrase "a meju that has fallen from the roof," on a a novel titled "Sesame Salt and Oktteolme" in the late 1970s, the word began to become popular.

 

▲ This photo, taken on Oct. 22, 2021, shows actress Kang Soo-yeon posing on the red carpet for the 2021 Gangneung International Film Festival. (Yonhap)

"Sesame Salt and Oktteolme" was also made into a movie in 1982. Kang Soo-yeon, one of the representative Korean actresses in the 1980s, played the main character nicknamed "Sesame Salt."

(END)

 

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