One of my favorite Korean dishes is unsurprisingly a soup / stew, called Doenjang jjigae (pronounced: dwen-jahng jeegae), which is named after “doenjang,” which literally translates to “thick sauce.” Doenjang is fermented soybean paste. It has a salty, nutty, and—well—fermented flavor that I found slightly addicting as soon as I first tried it. As a vegetarian in a land of meat-eaters who don’t consider seafood to be meat at all, I often find myself shelling out the short-necked clams that usually come in the soup and piling them into the bowls of my eating companions, knowing that the broth is still made with anchovies. Because I’m here and I want to experience the culture as far as I feel I can, I don’t let these things bother me, but I still always feel much better eating something I know is completely meat-free.
That only happens when I eat my own cooking.
There aren’t many ingredients in doenjang jjigae, so after a while of suffering cravings, I finally decided to make it.
Doenjang is a very old part of Korean cuisine. Some of the earliest recorded varieties of kimchi were made by smearing a Korean radish in doenjang and letting it ferment that way. A poet whose name I forget described the flavor of that kimchi in the summer as sweet as a pear. But if poetic quality isn’t enough for you, doenjang is actually really healthy: it’s full of flavanoids, vitamins and minerals, phytoestrogens, and lysine, an ~essential~ amino acid you can’t find in rice. All of this survives boiling, by the way.
Traditionally, the base of the soup is made with anchovies and kelp, boiled for fifteen or twenty minutes, after which the fish and kelp are both extracted. It’s easy enough to substitute a premade, vegetable-based stock for the anchovies, although the flavor will admittedly be different from a true, traditional taste.
Here is the recipe I used to good results. I traded out the traditional ingredient of mu, or Korean radish, for enoki mushrooms, because mu are quite large and I didn’t want to try to store it after I cooked since I wasn’t about to make kkakdugi or anything with it afterwards. However, mu are a little bit spicy so I recommend using red pepper flakes if you don’t use mu to make up for the enoki mushrooms’ lack of flavor in that area.
You can find any of these ingredients at a Korean mart or you can substitute what you can find at your own supermarket for anything here… except the doenjang, of course. If you need help finding anything at the Korean mart, I’ve written the Korean words for the ingredients in parenthesis by the ingredient so you can show that to someone who can help you there!
VEGETARIAN DOENJANG JJIGAE (serves 1-2)
– 1 tablespoon condensed vegetarian soup base
– 3 tablespoons doenjang (된장)
– 1/2 tablespoon red pepper flake (고추 가루)
– 2 tablespoons minced garlic (다진 마늘)
– 1/2 small white onion (양파)
– 1 or 2 green onions (파)
– 1 or 2 small bunches of enoki mushroom (팽이버섯) OR 1/4 Korean radish (무)*
– 1/3 Korean grey squash (애호박)
(you can use a regular zucchini for this because it’s basically the same)
– 1/3 package of mid-firm tofu (찌개용 두부)
– 1 Korean green pepper (풋고추)
*don’t mistake this for daikon! Korean radishes are round like potatoes rather than long and thin like a carrot (this is a daikon), although their coloring is almost the same.
– bring a small pot of water to a boil and add the condensed vegetarian soup base.
– let this simmer while you prepare the vegetables
2. Vegetables / Tofu
– cut the 1/3 Korean grey squash into thin rectangular pieces
– cut the bunches of enoki mushroom about halfway down the stalk (the bottoms can be discarded),
– or, if you use the Korean radish, cut it into similar sized pieces to the squash
– cut the 1/2 onion into small pieces (but don’t mince it)
– cut the tofu into small cubes
– cut the green pepper into thin, diagonal slices (don’t fear or remove the pith/seeds, they’re flavorful and not spicy!)
– add the doenjang to the soup base, and let boil for 3 minutes
– add the red pepper flakes
– add the minced garlic and enoki mushrooms
– boil till the mushrooms are cooked (~3 mins)
4. Add the Vegetables
– add the squash and onions
– boil for ~3-4 mins
– add the tofu
– top with green onion and green pepper