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The joys of gochujang, Korean hot pepper paste

Updated on June 6, 2013
So much gochujang from tawalker on Flickr
So much gochujang from tawalker on Flickr

If you’ve ever been to a Korean restaurant, you’ve probably seen it: gochujang, thick and red, waiting to be spooned onto bibimbap or over rice. It smells peppery, with the telltale smell of fermentation lingering over the sauce. But when you put it on your food, everything disappears, and a bold, rich flavor explodes in your mouth.

Gochujang has been a Korean pantry staple since the late 18th century, and today, it is considered one of the indispensable condiments of Korean cuisine. It is used as a base ingredient in many Korean dishes, and it is one of the essential Korean food ingredients.

Gochujang is one of three staple condiments in Korea, with the other two being doenjang and ganjang. In Korean, the suffix “jang” is used for sauces. It means “thick sauce” or “paste.”

Maangchi shows how to make gochujang

Import turned Korean staple

In the 16th century, travelers brought red chile peppers into Korea. Before then, chile peppers weren’t widely available. Once the crop was established, however, the spicy ingredient began to infiltrate Korean cuisine.

In the 18th century, people got the idea to dry the chile peppers and grind them into a powder. They mixed this powder into glutinous rice powder and soybean paste--similar to miso paste--and poured this mixture into large clay pots. The pots would sit out in the sun and be left to ferment on an elevated stone platform known as jangdokdae.

Gochujang is made today using old traditions, although home production has all but disappeared such the early 1970s. While it was common for people to make gochujang in their backyards, this practice ceased with the advent of mass-market production. Some people continue to make their own gochujang. Here is a recipe for homemade gochujang from the blog Neo-Homesteading.

While it is still possible to make gochujang at home, most gochujang is purchased from commercial producers. Here is a link to reviews of commercially available gochujang. In commercial production, jangokdae are still used, as is the general process of natural fermentation.

Gochujang paste from inazakira on Flickr
Gochujang paste from inazakira on Flickr

A little pinch of chile pepper, a little pinch of salt

Gochujang’s main ingredients are red chile powder, glutinous rice and soybean powder, and salt. Because the soybean powder is fermented before it is mixed into the gochujang, the final gochujang sauce has extra complexity as the flavors meld and the soybeans ferment further. Gochujang itself is spicy but sweet.

Although glutinous rice is the customary ingredient, other grains can be used. Substituting short-grain rice and barley instead of glutinous rice result in a gochujang similar to the original recipe. Other variations are possible, including gochujang made from whole wheat kernels, pumpkin, sweet potato, and jujubes. Sometimes the gochujang is sweetened with sugar, honey, or syrup, but this isn't typical. The natural sweetness of the gochujang comes from the rice and peppers.

Healthy and delicious

In the Korean pantry, ingredients are prized not only for their tradition and their flavor, but also for their nutritional value. Due to the chemical processes undergone during fermentation, gochujang is a well-rounded condiment, providing protein, fats, and vitamins B2, C, and carotene.

In addition to gochujang’s nutritional value, gochujang as helps to speed up metabolism--handy for burning fat--and is low in fat and calories.

Gochujang pork from Girl Interrupted Eating on Flickr
Gochujang pork from Girl Interrupted Eating on Flickr

Uses for gochujang

Gochujang is a widely used ingredient, found both in other condiments, as the base for certain Korean dishes, or just as a standalone condiment. Chogochujang and ssamjang are two sauces made with gochujang as the base. Chogochujang is gochujang with the addition of vinegar, sugar, and sesame seeds. Ssamjang is a blend of different Korean sauces--gochujang, doenjang--with sesame oil, onion, garlic, green onions, and brown sugar.

Gochujang is used to marinate meat for bulgogi and to flavor jjigae, Korean stew generally served family-style. Jjigae are usually included as a set part of every meal. Although the jjigae can be made with a variety of different ingredients such as beef, seafood, dumplings, or vegetables, gochujang or a similar condiment is used as the jjigae base.

One of the most popular uses of gochujang as a condiment, especially abroad, is to use it to flavor bibimbap. Bibimbap is a traditional Korean dish in which pickled vegetables and meat are served over warm rice. Occasional an egg is placed on top. Gochujang is offered on the side as a condiment, and everything is stirred together before eating.

Gochujang, foodie darling

Gochujang has begun to make inroads in American cuisine, and in 2013, it was named a top food trend by Bon Appetit Magazine, a leading food publication in the U.S. In the United States, more haute Asian restaurants are using gochujang in their dishes.

Some dub the American love for gochujang "the search for the next sriracha." This refers to the popularity of a similar spicy condiment, so-called "rooster sauce," in the United States. A writer has written a lovely ode to gochujang on The Awl. This was written in 2012, when gochujang was entering the consciousness of American eaters.

Sunchang County, Korean, is known for its gochujang, and it has foodie appeal for those wanting to try the famous gochujang.

Tasty Korean food from eggnara on Flickr
Tasty Korean food from eggnara on Flickr

What's your favorite Asian condiment?

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