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Live Long and Prosper – Food Advice from Old Choseon

Traditional fermented dishes such as doenjang and Kimchi form the basis of the Korean diet.

It is a known fact that the inhabitants of cultures and regions which have fermented milk products as part of their daily diet (e.g. the Caucasus) tend to live longer.

Doenjang Jjigye
Doenjang Jjigye

In the case of soybean-based dishes such as doenjang, the health benefits of soybeans are increased by the process of fermentation, and can help prevent heart disease, obesity, and a wide range of cancers.

The beauty of fermentation is that it achieves the same effect as artificial preservatives, without the negative side effects that come with man-made additives. Fermentation extends the life of food naturally, using microorganisms instead of artificial processes (like nanotechnology), and thus not only preserves the food but eradicates harmful elements, and boosts the body’s immune systems.

In fact, even without considering nanotechnology, scientists are increasingly studying fermented foods to see what can be learned from them, particularly in the fight against obesity.

All this is good news if you like Korean food, as 70% of it is naturally fermented. This can be traced back to the Koguryo period, according to the Chinese work ‘Records of the Three Kingdoms’ (3rd century BC). But it undoubtedly goes back beyond historical records.

Raw Doenjang - Soybean Paste
Raw Doenjang - Soybean Paste

Doenjang, a bulwark of the Korean diet alongside Kimchi, was created according to legend by a Buddhist monk in the Old Choseon period (2333 BC~108 BC), with the aim of making a food that would lessen the number of bad deeds committed by those who ate it.

His reasoning was that people committed such acts because their minds were not at ease, and that this could be helped by a food that would put one’s internal organs at rest.

The result of his prayers and meditation was doenjang, made through an elaborate and time-consuming process beginning with raw soy beans and ending up with a paste that contained the energy of the four elements of earth, sun, water, and air. The last phase was to hang the blocks of soybean paste (meju) under the eaves of a house to expose them to the ‘breath of the Buddha’.

Thousands of years later, soy foods are increasingly recognized as having a potential role in the prevention and treatment of a wide range of cancers. Their 40% protein content, which unlike dairy and meat protein is low in saturated fat and free from cholesterol, has earned soy beans the title ‘meat from the field’. They have been shown to offer a solution to the growing rate of coronary heart disease, the leading cause of death in America and most European countries.

A raft of research has shown that the benefits of soy are enhanced significantly by the process of fermentation, which removes nutritional inhibitors such as trypsin and increases the absorption rate. It appears the unnamed monk who invented doenjang was on to something.

From a UK perspective, I have found my Korean friends to be unduly obsessed with a) medicine and b) food. There is in fact a Korean proverb that ‘Food is medicine’, so clearly there is a link. In the West we say ‘You are what you eat’, and if that is true, then maybe Koreans are not wrong to be more preoccupied with it than us Brits. I would rather be a humanised version of Doenjang than a life form based on fish and chips.

Doenjang in Storage - Meju
Doenjang in Storage - Meju

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