Oral History Interview
My Grandmother Makes Doenjang
200801424 Park Hyeonbae
My grandmother is very old; she is 83. She is bent and now it's hard for her to stand or walk. But only a few years ago, she was still healthy and able to go out to sell fruits in business. Before she got too weak like now, she used to make all the food for the family. When I was younger than now, my family was a large family, including my grandmother, my father, an aunt, an uncle, me and my younger sister―my mother passed away before. In the dinners, usually my grandmother prepared for the food. Grandmother always emphasized that doenjang and kimchi makes people healthy. That was the reason why should eat them in every meal. When I was young, I didn't like doenjang so much. Especially, the doenjang my family used to eat was the one that my grandmother made on her own; sometimes I could see several blocks of fermented soybeans at the corner in the house. At that time, I didn't know why she didn't want to buy it from markets and kept her own way, and even I didn't like its smell. But now I understand that was the way she loves the family; she didn't want to feed the family with the manufactured products, and thought that the traditionally made food was far better. So she wanted to keep the way. By now, much experienced with the food other than my home's, I came to realize that actually the doenjang made by her was really much more delicious than any other ones.
She now lives with her second son's family. He is supporting his weak and elderly mother in his house at Bundang, Gyeonggi Province. Someday I was bored and needed to be refreshed, so I suddenly felt that I should go see my grandmother because it was quite long times no see. It was a rather chilly day. I took the bus to Bundang. Before I departed, I called her.
"Grandma, it's me. I want to see you."
"Oh, dear, my kid. I miss you too. Are you still busy these days?"
Yes, I often made excuses that I was busy. But now, I also don't want to.
"Grandma, I'm on the road to see you. I'll get there soon."
When I got there, there were the whole family of my uncle and grandmother―he has two young daughters. We gladly greeted, and I and grandmother hugged each other. She seemed a little bit tired with her aged body. But as she saw me, she gradually got vitality. Whenever I see her, I can feel that and I come to know she really loves me.
We had a barbecue for the dinner. I could feel that it was because of my visit. My family has such a ritual habit when there' is something special. I felt comfortable a little bit. On the table, the doenjang(in this case, actually it was the one mixed with other ingredients for the barbecue) was also served as always. Then I felt that it will be good enough for the material of the interview. In fact, I thought that the taste and the recipe might disappear with her someday. So I decided to interview her about how she came to make doenjang.
After the dinner, I asked her, just as ordinary. "By the way, grandma, how do you make it? When did you learn the recipe of doenjang?" To my question, she seemed that it was rather unexpected and asked me smiling. "Why, do you want to learn making it?" "Yes, I want to learn and keep your recipe."
With my request, she began to explain how she came to learn the recipe and how to make it. When she was a very young girl, she had to assist whatever in her home. Because she spent lots of her childhood under Japanese occupation and in the Korean War, it was very hard time to keep the living. And it was very natural for the people in that time to feed on the food that they made by themselves. Also the people were suffering from the shortage of food. So whatever it was, the people had to conserve everything. My grandmother was also suffering from the same problem. She said that she could make the 'real' doenjang for the first time after 1957, which was when she was 27, although the first time that she learned the recipe was at her age of 8. According to her, before that, people should make insufficient doenjang with lesser ingredients. When she was an 8 years old child, she had to do house chore. It also meant that she also helped his mother cooking. She was taught how to cook and even how to make doenjang. She said that actually she learned it by her grandmother, not by her mother. One day, her grandmother instructed how to make it, showing the process by herself; her mother was also following the way too. At that time, it wasn't enough for her to follow up the entire process because it was too difficult for a young child. But time by time, with the continuous teaching from her grandmother and her mother and cooking by herself, she gradually became skillful. She recollected the first time she made doenjang without any help. She was 14. She also added that it was hard to make doenjang; not only because she was young and not proficient, but also because the Japanese people oppressed the Korean tradition itself. She depicted a situation that one day 2 Japanese policemen aggressed on some guys eating cheonggukjang in the marketplace. The reason why they were mean was it smelled bad. While telling this, she started to burst out her lament and anger from the bottom of her heart. I could guess that it's from the hardship of her life. I felt sorry that she had really suffered from the many difficult days.
I asked another question to avoid making her sad. "Grandma, then could you teach me to make doenjang? I'm afraid that someday I'll miss the taste of yours. I want to keep the recipe." "Do you? Are you serious?" She then smiled at me again, wiping her tearful eyes out. "It's not too difficult. But you have to spend some time to get proficient." "I know. I just want to be familiar with your recipe and some important points of it. After that, I may be able to be good at making it on my own." She instructed me the recipe for short. I asked her for more detailed process, but she noticed me. "If you want to get it, you should visit me more often. I said, it needs time and sincerity."
"By the way, have you ever taught the recipe to any other family members?" I asked. "Your uncle does know it." She called him. He said he also had learned how to make it. But he also added it's difficult to exactly mimic the taste of grandmother's doenjang. "Of course," she said. "it won't be made in a day. It takes time." In this moment, I asked my uncle when he learned it. It was after he got married. He said after he got married, he became disappointed with the food and, especially the doenjangjjigae made by her wife. "It was because of doenjang." He said. "I realized my mother's doenjang was the best. There has been no better doenjang ever. So I decided to learn how to make it. Maybe it was about 10 years ago." He explained how he made efforts to learn it. And one day, he gave grandmother's doenjang as the presents to his acquaintances. Then they all praised it. He then made it by himself and again he offered it to some of them. But he was only told that it wasn't enough as before. So he still asks her mother to help when he makes doenjang. The latest one was made in the early of this year. "Maybe I can assist in the next time," I said. "Yeah, maybe, if you want," My grandmother said.
I had a new feeling while being told about the story of her old days. Although it was very little part of her life, I felt I could draw some old pictures related with it. While I was listening to her story, I felt I was less interested in her so far and now I and grandmother have no enough time to get together because she is too old. It made me rather complex and sad. So I decided to visit her more often, just to see her and learn her doenjang recipe.