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« A MEDIEVAL MOROCCAN FEAST by Hajar Laurie Lahouifi | Main | Naengmyun, Chilled Noodles by Ji Young Park »

November 25, 2005

Korean Mother Sauces and Stocks by Ji-Young Park

The three most important sauces in Korean cooking are kangjang*, toenjang** and koch'ujang***. All are made with meju, blocks of fermented soybean paste. Commercially packaged meju comes in different sizes and forms, from pellets to powder.

The basic stocks are white beef stock and sun dried anchovy stock. Chicken stock is NOT common at all. And there is no such thing as vegetable stock in authentic Korean cooking. Authenticity is a tricky word and I do not have a single benchmark for it. How is that for straddling the fence? I will try to place recipes within context. That is the best I can do in terms of what is authentic or not.

Beef stock is also more of a restaurant item in Korea. Korea is a soup loving country and bones are in high demand. The last time I was in Korea about 4 years ago the beef bones were just as expensive as the best cuts of meat. And the price of beef had just started to become more accessible. Beef stock as a home pantry item is more of a Korean-American thing. In the past in Korea it was more for the wealthy and it still is for the most part.

Up until at least thirty or so years ago a Korean family was considered somewhat wealthy if they ate one chicken a week. That's how poor the country was. How is it possible then that chicken stock would be a staple? Also, generally speaking a chicken soup or stew will have whole or bone in chicken, there is no need to make a separate chicken stock. The only time I've seen chicken stock used in a restaurant or home are in dishes where a stock is made and the chicken meat is taken off the bone, the bones cooked a little longer, the stock is strained and the meat is added back in. This isn't to say that chicken stock is not used in Korean cooking by some cooks, it's just not common at all.

Vegetable stock is not authentic either. No self-respecting frugal Korean will throw out the vegetables after rendering the flavors. It serves no function in Korean cooking. On the other hand I've heard stories of crazy Korean-Americans using things like vegetable stock.

I'm writing some of this stuff with my tongue in cheek. Older, more traditional Koreans are likely to dismiss or scrutinize anything I have to say based on how "Americanized" I seem to be. I've been told on several occassions that my way of seasoning is missing just a little something to be "authentic", "delicious, but not authentic" as all the food I made dissappears. These are the same people who will proclaim almost anything made by a Korean grandmother as having that special "old country" taste.

My way of seasoning is like my mother's. Jeonju (or Chonju) cooking is known for its refinement, actually the entire Chollo-do province is known as the gastronomic center. It is considered by Korean food writers to be the best region for food. My mother's family owned a good bit of land there for over 25 generations. Her family were Yangban (landed gentry). Yangban families always had ties to the Royal court, sometimes through marriage, government positions and Confucian gentleman scholars. Even after the Royal Court was done in, the style of cooking and recipes lived on through yangban families. Of course the class system ended during the Korean war, so now we're all just middle class like Americans are. People actually take classes on how to be middle class. Classes on cooking and setting a "proper table", etiquette, mimicking yangban marriage customs and so on are not uncommon in Korea.

My family cooking is also influenced by family migration and relatives from different provinces such as Kyonggi-do, Ch'ungch ongdo (where my father is from), Kyongsang-do, Pyong-an-do and finally immigration to America. Don't jump the gun just yet on the implications of moving to America. I'm saving it for another post.


Koch'ujang. Most Koreans buy prepared koch'ujang these days. It is still home made by some, mostly in rural areas. The commercial varieties can be very good. In Korea there are small makers who sell their home made jangs. I'm pretty sure there are some in Korea Town, Los Angeles.The best koch'ujang is considered to be from Cholla-do, it is aged for six months! That is the way my mother used to make it. I remember staring at the clay vessel wondering when it would finally be ready to eat. I have the confidence to make homemade koch'ujang. I will try it when the season is right. There is a short cut version using white miso. I think this is where the confusion started regarding koch'ujang being a sort of spicy miso. No, it's not. The traditional base is meju and barley malt powder.



The traditional method for preparing toenjang also produces Chosun kanjang. My mother still has a bottle from a batch she made about 30 years ago. It's mostly used for seasoning soups, especially miyok guk (kelp soup). I'm not sure if I should attempt to make toenjang and Chosun kanjang without adult supervision. 

Ssamjang is derivative of toenjang and not a mother sauce. Ssamjang is seasoned toenjang that is used as table condiment.


White beef stock. It will be cooled, the fat will congeal and float to the top making it very easy to degrease.

Yook Su


white beef bones (I prefer shin bones, some cooks use the foot, I do not)
1 whole Korean white radish
1 whole onion, peeled
5 cloves garlic


1. Wash the bones well under cold water. Put the bones in a pot, cover with water, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for about 20 minutes. Alot of scum will surface, drain (yes you throw out the water!), wash the bones, wash the pot, cover with water, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer. Repeat the draining and washing process one more time if needed. Once the bones are not giving of any more scum, add the radish and onion, cover with water, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 5-6 hours.

The bones are good for three more batches of stock. It freezes well and worth making if you like Korean soups and stews. This is the base for the yook su served with naengmyon.


Myolchi Geungmeul or Myolchi Changguk
Sun dried anchovy and dashima (dried kelp) broth. Some cooks just use anchovies. I like to add a piece of kelp. I like stock made with dried shrimp, but I think of anchovy broth being the most commonly used stock in Korean cooking. As far as most other seafood stocks are concerned, such as dried pollack, clams and mussels, I do not consider them stocks. They are a part of the dish and naturally result from making certain dishes. The solids aren't strained and discarded.

Some cooks remove the heads and veins from the anchovies saying it makes for a more refined broth, others argue that most of the flavor is in the heads. The ratio is basically 1 ounce of anchovies and a 2" piece of kelp for 8 cups of water. The anchovies typically used are the ones that are 3" long, the dried kelp is called dashima.

I was just at the Korean market and realized that alot of the packaged foods don't have English labels, other than a list of ingredients and sometimes the names in small print. I provide a visual aid for recognizing the three mother sauces.


The red tubs and jars containe koch'ujang the yellow or brown tubs and jars contain toenjang.


Korean commercial brands of kanjang, which is basically the same as Japanese soy sauce.

*The "k" in kanjang is pronounced more like a hard "g". It may sound like a "k" to an anglophone's ears. But to this Korean there is another letter in hangul for the Korean "k" sound.

**Toenjang is really pronounced more like "dwenjang" depending on the type of accent you have.

*** Refer to the "k" in kanjang.


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I wanted to let you know how much I'm enjoying this blog. I went to Korea for the first time a few months ago and LOVED everything I ate. I'm somewhat familiar with the cuisine from restaurants here and in San Francisco, and I have lots of Korean cookbooks, but have never tried to cook the food. Of course, the food I ate in Korea was much better than anything I had ever eaten before - the cold noodles were absolutely wonderful - a revelation, in fact. I didn't get to try the raw crabs in Korea (I think our hosts weren't sure if we would want them) but I eat them at a place in Hong Kong - I love the texture and flavours.

As usual, this is all very interesting.

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