Today the forecast calls for China dust,” our interpreter says cheerfully. A lingering smog often chokes this eastern coast of Korea, though for now the air is bracing, clear. It’s December and we’ve set off predawn from the beach town of Busan, driving north through national parks, past Pohang (a steel town called the “Pittsburgh of Korea” with a Steelers soccer team to match) and ending up in the village of Jukjang-myeon. Our van turns down a long gravel driveway, and we are greeted with the pleasant perfume of burning oak.

Hooni Kim, a Korean-American chef, jumps out to stretch his legs and points at a large building in the distance. Smoke curls out of an open window.

“This is the sign that doenjang season has started,” Hooni says, walking toward the plume.

A fermented soybean paste, doenjang is one of three fundamental jangs (or “thick sauces”) of Korean cooking. Gochujang gets all the press: fiery, slightly sweet, composed primarily of sweet rice paste and pulverized chile flakes. Ganjang is a lighter type of soy sauce, used to season vege tables. Doenjang is a critical pantry paste, best used in combination with other things, or manipulated during cooking rather than squirted on at the end like a hot sauce. Doenjang is also the key ingredient in ssamjang, the spread found on all Korean barbecue tables—the sauce you’re told to slather on the glistening meat that is then wrapped in lettuce leaves with a bit of rice. It’s the driving force behind classic soups and stews, and many Koreans eat it daily.

Most of the we see in America is decidedly massproduced, imported by the shipping pallet and stacked in K-town supermarkets in ubiquitous brown tubs. At Hooni’s restaurant in the Flatiron district of Manhattan, Hanjan, I’d tried a different kind of . Over a plate of “fresh kill” chicken skewers and a bottle of Mâconnais chardonnay, Hooni introduced me over the years, having written a Korean cookbook and traveled to the country a handful of times. But this one startled me. Tasting it was transporting, spiritual.

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