Recipe: Doenjang (된장) Coleslaw
I longed for a coleslaw recipe that didn’t require mayonnaise or a similar product for this summer’s barbecue season. I also wanted something I could pair with a Fourth of July hot dog and pretend I was eating a healthful meal.
It might be my imagination, but I seem to find mis0-based salad dressings in many grocery stores around my Northern California home. And of course, when I see the word miso (Japanese fermented soybean paste) on a food label, my mind inescapably wanders toward 된장 doenjang (Korean fermented soybean paste). My mind conspires with my expectant palate to replace miso with doenjang every chance I get.
Since both miso and doenjang are made from fermented soybeans, the ingredients are always interchangeable in recipes, right? However, doenjang and miso interchangeability is a myth. Don’t assume you know beans about the outcome of two sauces that have similar starting points. Only by trial and error will you learn which recipes must use miso only and which ones can handle the sharper doenjang flavor. Such an error can turn a recipe into an unmitigated disaster. That’s what makes the kitchen an exciting place.
I could have cheated and just used a bottle of miso salad dressing but I wanted a challenge and I didn’t want the oil or dairy products you find in most of the bottled salad or coleslaw sauces.
One sauce is not like the other
There are a few reasons for the distinctive characteristics of what seem like should be similar sauces.
Doenjang is simply cooked soybeans and salt plus fermentation. Miso is a bit more complex, with a mix of soybeans — or other legumes such as adzuki beans — rice, salt and a cooking liquid that are fermented.
Doenjang and miso use different fermentation techniques. Both start with cooked soybeans, but what’s added to the soybeans and for how long the mix is fermented will determine if you have mild-mannered miso or bold, brash doenjang.
When making doenjang, the cooked soybeans are ground into a thick paste then pressed into blocks called 메주 meju or 말장 maljang. The meju blocks are covered with dried rice stalks, which inoculates the soybeans with Bacillus subtilis, and cured outdoors for several months.
The fermentation process produces a strong ammonia odor, a smell that reminds me of cat urine. Understandably, making one’s own doenjang can complicate friend-making with neighbors.
After the probiotic smorgasbord, the blocks are submerged in brine inside containers — traditionally, large ceramic pots called 옹기 onggi. After a few more months, the brine becomes Korean soy sauce, and the soybean paste becomes doenjang.
Miso starts with cooked soybeans mixed with the fungus Aspergillus oryzae, what the Japanese call koji, finely ground sea salt and some of the cooking liquid pureed. The mixture is pureed into a fine paste. That is tightly packed into clay jars, covered with a thick layer of salt then cured for at least six months. There is no soy sauce by-product.
When the Japanese usually grind miso into a fine paste, so fine that one would have a hard time recognizing miso as a legume product.
Doenjang is not as finely ground as miso. Most doenjangs still have bits of intact soybean embedded in the paste. Some have just a few beans, some have lots of chunks.
Miso is like creamy peanut butter, and doenjang is the chunky. I have found that Western palates prefer doenjang to be finely ground for marinades, dressings and sauces. But “chunkyjang” can work well in soups and casseroles.
This recipe works well as part of a banchan set or as a more typically Western side dish.
1/2 head green cabbage, shredded
1 carrot, grated
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1/2 cup doenjang dressing
2 tablespoons doenjang
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons honey
2 teaspoons ginger, grated
- Finely shred the cabbage into a large bowl.
- Clean and grate one carrot into the same bowl with the cabbage.
- Mix the doenjang, rice vinegar, soy sauce, honey and grated ginger in a food processor and until combined. I pressed the doenjang through a sieve, softening and mixing it with the other ingredients. It might be more work but since I had such a small amount to make, it didn’t seem worth the time to get out the food processor. If I decided to double or triple the recipe, then I’d probably get out the food processor.
- Pour the dressing onto the salad in the larger bowl, and stir until the cabbage, carrot and sesame seeds are completely coated.