Spice Hunting: Gochujang, Korean Chile Paste
Is there room for another chile paste in your life—and your crowded fridge?
Yes, friends, yes there is.
Sriracha's lovely. Harissa is a fiery punch in the mouth with flavor to match. But if you're looking for a sweeter, funkier flavor from your chiles, gochujang (pronounced go-choo-jong) is the thing for you.
Gochujang is what gives Korean kimchi and tofu stews their sweet heat, bibimbap rice bowls their piquancy and rice cakes their sauce. You have to love a culture that uses chile as one of its mother sauces.
Gochujang is made from red chiles, glutinous rice,* and soy beans. It's a little hot, a little fermented funky, and more than a little sweet. What it lacks in chile fire it makes up in rounded meaty flavors and the ripe twang of a good stinky cheese. Unlike other chile pastes, gochujang adds as much meaty edge as spice, which makes it a go-to main ingredient, not just a condiment.
* Which doesn't actually contain gluten, but is sticky like glutinous bread dough—especially when mashed. Glutinous rice also has a mildly sweet flavor.
Packages frequently display a heat scale; in my gochujang's case the scale is in the completely arbitrary (to my knowledge) Gochujang Hot taste Unit (GHU). 3 is about right for my tastes—mild enough to use like ketchup in small doses, but plenty intense in larger amounts.
How to Use Gochujang
If you have gochujang and fish stock you will never go hungry. Simmer some vegetables, meat, or fish in a broth made of the two. Serve over noodles or rice. Or turn into a stew with some kimchi or tofu stirred in. It's the kind of shortcut cooking that doesn't taste like it, food to nourish with little notice.
Since it's both round in flavor and mild in heat (well, for a chile paste anyway), gochujang really elevates vegetable dishes. Eggplant, cauliflower, and green beans all do very well when blistered in a pan, cooked till tender, and sauced with gochujang and soy sauce or broth (toss with scallions and toasted sesame seeds for crunch). It also makes a quick marinade for thin slices of beef or pork destined for the grill or a stir fry. Add some rice vinegar and soy sauce, let sit for a few hours, and cook away.
The sweet, fermented flavor of gochujang pairs perfectly with smoky ingredients. Bacon's probably the best to add smoke, meatiness, and highly flavored fat to round out the chile. Here's my new weeknight dinner: render bacon till really crisp, fry Korean rice cakes in the bacon fat, then stir fry half a head of napa cabbage in what's left. Combine everything together with enough gochujang to make a sauce for a meal that takes almost no effort but reaps boundless rewards.
The more traditional version of the dish is called ddok boki, made with boiled rice cakes and a sweet, spicy sauce. But while I can't say my version is authentic to...anything (especially since I slip in some Japanese shichimi togarashi), the crisp-chewy rice cakes and blistered cabbage in a smoky, spicy sauce are hard to beat.
It's also proof that gochujang isn't limited to the Korean culinary pantheon. Though its fermented flavor does somewhat limit its versatility as a go-to chile paste, it's a beautiful shortcut ingredient that doesn't compromise on flavor. Try some on your meatloaf instead of a ketchup glaze, or stir a spoonful into a pot of black beans with cumin and orange peel. Gochujang has a long shelf life when kept in the fridge, so don't be surprised if you're scraping the edges of your container before you know it.
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About the author: Max Falkowitz is a proud native of Queens, New York. He'll do just about anything for a good cup of tea and enjoys long walks down the aisles of Chinese groceries. He is also known to make ice cream on occasion. You can follow him on Twitter at @maxfalkowitz.