Go ahead, open a tub of Gochujang, the Korean chili paste. Notice the regal vermillion hue. Take a whiff, and let its funky fermented scent settle in. Now take a cucumber spear, dip it into the paste and bite. You’ve just popped an umami bomb in your mouth.
Gochujang is the not-so-secret sauce that’s fast becoming a favorite condiment of chefs everywhere, whether they’re Korean, French or tatted-up Brooklyn hipsters. Think of it as the new Sriracha, but with more complexity and sweetness. Commonly used as “Korean ketchup,” it’s superb with grilled meats.
“You’ve got multiple levels of spice, sweetness and funkiness in the best possible meaning of that word,” explains Matt Rodbard, co-author of Koreatown, USA, a new cookbook due out in 2016. “In my travels around the country, I’m seeing a lot of chefs experimenting with it. It’s an interesting way to get that distinctive Asian flavor profile. It’s puzzling but also intriguing. People want to know: What’s that wonderful depth of flavor?”
Together with Momofuku alum Deuki Hong, Rodbard developed a recipe that combines Gochujang with pineapple juice to pour over raw seafood. James Beard Award-winner Jamie Bissonnette marinates chicken wings in Gochujang and cola. Top Chef winner Paul Qui makes a grilled cheese with Camembert, green apple, nori, Kewpie mayo and Gochujang. The critically acclaimed Small Axe Truck in Portland, Maine, serves a cold-smoked beef burger on brioche with shishito peppers and Gochujang ketchup. Wolfgang Puck’s riff on a BLT features applewood-smoked pork belly, Gochujang aioli, cucumber and Asian pear.
Of course, Koreans were using Gochujang long before “it” chefs everywhere started grabbing for it. Traditionally, the combination of red pepper powder, glutinous rice powder, soybean powder, salt and water is stuffed into earthenware pots and left to ferment for several months, if not years. The result is a deeply savory paste that’s a foundational element of Korean cuisine used to flavor stews, all manner of meat dishes, seafood and vegetables. These days, Gochujang is made commercially and can be found in plastic tubs in most Asian grocers.
It’s still one of those mystery condiments. I’m not seeing a lot of my non-Korean friends using it.
Never hear of Gochujang? Well, chances are you’ve had it without even realizing it. It gives kimchi its distinctive fiery kick and provides the spicy, meaty roundness in bibimbap, the signature Korean rice bowl. No doubt, it’s included among the assorted side dishes served with Korean barbecue known as banchan.
Here’s the curious thing, though. Despite its versatility and crave-inducing flavor, Gochujang has yet to blast into the mainstream.
“It’s still one of those mystery condiments,” Rodbard says. “I’m not seeing a lot of my non-Korean friends using it.”
Rodbard speculates that the gradual embrace of Gochujang is due to the fact that it usually needs to be mixed with other ingredients, although it can be used straight as a dip. Try mixing it into stews, sauces for noodles and marinades for your favorite protein. Or combine with garlic, ginger, soy sauce and rice wine vinegar for a terrific dipping sauce.
In Korea, Gochujang is so ubiquitous that “expats complain that every time they eat Korean food, it’s red,” says Joe McPherson, an American who runs ZenKimchi, the popular blog that explores Korean food in South Korea.
McPherson says Gochujang’s growing visibility outside of Korea is just one indicator of the global interest in Korean cuisine.
“It’s been really impressive to see. With the new expats coming into Korea, there is more appreciation and respect for Korean food because there is a lot more familiarity with it now.”
So if you’re still not familiar with Gochujang, get on it. You’ll thank us later.
Why you should care
Because a spicy condiment this rich, complex and completely addictive is to be kept with a very close eye — and tongue — on it.