(The Mice=Sara Grant) About a four-hour drive from Seoul in North Cholla Province is the beautiful Sunchang. Nestled in the mountains of southwest Korea, this picturesque area is the traditional home of many of Koreas finest sauces and food products. Among the most famous is Sunchang traditional gochujang (red chili pepper paste) that is a major condiment for Korea cuisine. This weekend, as well, was held the 2017 Sunchang International Sauce Exposition and the 12th Sunchang Fermented Food Festival. I had the pleasure of witnessing both the exhibition and festivities.
For centuries, the temperate climate in the area around Sunchang has made it the ideal area to grow peppers, soy beans, and other key ingredients to make fabulous fermented sauces. During the last years of the Koryo Dynasty, General Lee Sung Gye was praying with the renowned monk Moohak for guidance on building a new country. At the time he was located near Sunchang and one day he tried gochujang with rice and thought it was the finest sauce he had ever tasted. Later General Lee Sung Gye established the Joseon Dynasty (1392). Sunchang would send their famous sauce (gochujang) to the King Lee Sung Gye who decreed that it was the finest of all sauces and so it has until this day.
Now Sunchang is the center of a public-private partnership to study and develop all types of traditional fermented foods. Included in the Sunchang area are numerous research facilities such as the Microbial Institute for Fermentation Industry, Institute of Sunchang Fermented Soybean Products, and the Jang Experience Center. Because the area is a blend of high technology research and development and traditional arts, the area also has a traditional folk village as well.
In the shadow of Ae Mi San Mountain (this mountain looks like a hat from ancient China and dominates the exhibition area), the festival is an international exhibition of sauces and fermented products from around the world. The exposition site boasts three exhibition halls. These halls had exhibits from fermented food and sauce vendors from around the world. You could literally take a tour around the world, sampling as you went, to get a feel for the tremendous variety of fermented food, sauce and wine products there are on the globe. In addition to the exhibition halls there were also various food vendors to feed the most discriminating visitor. Of special interest was the Underground Tunnel for Fermented Sauces. This tunnel has display, artwork, exhibitions, and even a café and was an educational and fun place to visit.
The venue is wonderful, with plenty of parking, shuttles to the exhibition areas and things to see and do. All the light posts are shaped like red chili peppers and the roads and pathways are liked with numerous varieties of chili plants. Elsewhere are modern are sculptures of red peppers, animals, and other figures made out of empty boxes of soybean paste and of course gochujang. Its clean, easy to get around and the staff greats you with a smile and were very helpful.
The exhibition was not limited to the major vendors. In other areas, local farmers and vendors were there to show and sell the wide variety of produce and products grown and made in the Sunchang region. There were always placards available explaining the products on display and the health and nutritional benefits they offer. Over the years, the Korean Government has been conducting a promotional campaign to tout the nutritional and health benefits along with the tasty culinary experience of Korean food. This festival will greatly aid in that effort. In my view, the sauce makes the food and I can’t imagine Korea cuisine without gochujang.
In addition to the vendors, the exhibition also had a festive atmosphere with live music, folk performances, cooking demonstrations, tasting competitions, light shows and much more. Of course, in keeping in the spirit of the festival there is also a reenactment of the tribute parade conducted hundreds of years ago as the people of Sunchang bring gochujang to the King. This is all fitting and proper because as King Lee Sung Gye decreed ‘gochujang is the best sauce.