A love letter to Korea's sweet, savoury, spicy chilli paste.
Welcome to ingredient, where once a month I take a deep dive into some of my favourite seasonal and store cupboard ingredients. This month I’m focusing on gochujang, the brick red chilli paste so essential to Korean cooking that has a permanent place in my fridge door. Be sure to check out the footnotes I’ve included at the bottom which are full of recipe links and book recommendations if you want to dive deeper into Korean food and cooking from the comfort of your own kitchen!
For paid subscribers click here for my recipes for Korean Chicken Stew (Dakdoritang), Corn on the Cob with Gochujang Mayo, and a Spicy Sausage Ragu with Gochujang, all using this rich, wonderful paste. To access these recipes, you can upgrade your subscription here.
I’m a cook, so I’m allowed to have favourites among my extensive, sometimes ridiculous collections of ingredients. At the time of writing, just as an example, I have eight different types of mustard, thirteen different types of vinegar and nine different types of cooking and finishing salt on my kitchen shelves. So when I say something is my favourite among all the somethings, it has earned a special place in my everyday cooking.
Before I started my research for this newsletter I never really knew if I should be referring to gochujang as a Korean chilli sauce or a chilli paste. It is indeed a paste though I shelve it as the Korean chilli ‘sauce’ in my head. This thick (seriously some brands if they’ve been in the fridge are hard to get a measuring spoon into), rich, deep red and headily spiced paste is as essential to Korean cooking as kimchee, arguably even more so. It is what gives Korean Fried Chicken heat, creates a base for the delicious sweet chilli sauce ready for stirring into a bibimbap, and lends kimchee jjigae it’s signature brick red colour.1 For me, Korean food is comfort food and gochujang is so essential that I’ve not owned a fridge without it since the very first time I picked up a tub to marinate some pork belly strips and to try some Kimchee Fried Rice for the first time from the Asian supermarket.
My love affair with Korean food has two very defined starting points. The first I explain in essay entitled Koreatown in my book One Pan Pescatarian:
It was one single meal that started my love affair with Korean food and flavours.
One afternoon I hopped on an L.A. city bus with a bunch of other study-abroad students with one goal in mind: heading to Koreatown to seek out some traditional Korean barbecue. None of us had eaten Korean food before or even knew much about it, but we found ourselves standing on a corner looking a little lost, and wondering where we could find ourselves something good to eat. I’d just discovered that Yelp gives you restaurant recommendations based on your location, and from there we ended up heading down West 8th Street in the directions of Soot Bull Jeep which remains, to this day, where I experienced one of the very best meals of my life.
Soot Bull Jeep is a traditional Korean barbecue restaurant. It’s sparse inside, the only adornments on the tables being the big, open charcoal grills set into the middle of each one. A group of Korean grandmas were gossiping in the corner while they peeled massive bags of fat garlic cloves, and I’m pretty sure we were the only table speaking English. Soot Bull Jeep, it turned out, has something of a cult following among off-duty Korean chefs.2
The second experience that helped me fall in love with Korean food came a few months later, not so much an experience, but a book. In London pretty much the hottest food industry party ticket is the Observer Food Monthly Awards, not so much about the party itself, but about the so-heavy-you-need-a-taxi-home goodie bag that comes with it. This is how I got hold of food writer Jordan Bourke and his wife Rejina Pyo’s brilliant cookbook Our Korean Kitchen, the book I’d recommend to anyone living and cooking in the United Kingdom to buy if they want to get started making Korean food at home. After a few trips to the Asian supermarket, all that food I loved in California was suddenly appearing on my table in the middle of a rainy English autumn. I’ve been cooking Korean at home ever since.
So what is gochujang exactly? On the side of the O’Food brand, red and gold rectangular tub I keep in my fridge door I’m told it is 100% brown rice red pepper paste made with sun dried peppers (we’re talking chillies here, what we in England call dried chilli flakes our friends in the States call red pepper flakes - this was one of the first things that confused me the very first night I arrived in Los Angeles - both the different name, and that it is common to sprinkle them on pizza!), brown rice and more. The ‘more’ is best described in the introduction to Our Korean Kitchen:
Gochujang is… made from fermented soybeans… with the addition of glutinous rice flour, salt and plenty of powdered red chilli, giving it its characteristic spicy kick. The paste is aged in the sun over a period of months or years, resulting in a pungent, and deeply flavoured savoury paste that is used extensively in Korean cooking. Its flavour is quite unlike any other chilli paste so it really is worth getting your hands on it for Korean cooking.
And it really, really is. I promise you that you won’t have anything in your kitchen like it, and while I see lots of websites suggesting that sriracha is a suitable substitution, I don’t really think there is one. So yes, it is essential to Korean home cooking, but I encourage other uses, too. It mixes fabulously with mayonnaise for a burger sauce with a kick, and it adds depth to slow cooked sauces and braises where you’d ordinarily be adding something else with a bit of spice as a warmer background note.
I’m very picky about the gochujang I buy, but probably not as picky as I ought to be. Categorically, as it stands at the moment I will not buy a supermarket own brand paste; so far they’ve had none of the vibrancy, depth or consistency as Korean brands, and when I picked one up writing my last book just to see if I should be specifying a trip to the Asian grocery store or not, I was really disappointed. So, while I probably should differentiate between different brands, honestly, as long as it is Korean and comes in a red tub, I usually don’t care. In my fridge you’ll usually find either O’Food (the one with MSG) which you can order from Sous Chef, or Ajumma Republic, which they sell in Sainsbury’s.
Give it a go, grab a tub, and I hope you’ll come to love it as much as I do.
A few recipes for these Korean classics at home. Not all of these are authentic, but I picked / wrote them as entry points into Korean home cooking with easily accessible (at least in the UK) ingredients. First, Korean Fried Chicken, or my Air Fryer Korean Fried Chicken Wings - if you don’t have an air fryer you can just bake the wings in a 220 oven for 20-30 minutes until crisp. The recipe is an easy way to get some idea, at home, of the delicious coating that makes Korean fried chicken so great. Also, if you happen to be in London Little Korea on Lisle Street in Chinatown does Korean Fried Chicken (and Ttekbokki, my favourite dish of Spicy Rice Cakes) really, really well. Next, Bibimbap, a traditional bowl of rice with all sorts of delicious toppings. My version I created for BBC Food is served with kimchee, cucumber, quick pickled carrot, sesame spinach, a sesame fried egg, and a Korean-style sweet chilli sauce made with gochujang, honey, toasted sesame oil and rice wine vinegar I’m more than slightly addicted to. I don’t have a Kimchee Jigae recipe of my own, but the recipes on Food52 can usually be trusted, and this one also comes with a beautiful story.
Thanks to the joys of the internet, you can still read my blog post from that first, wonderful meal. Looking back on what I wrote, I don’t think I’d quite yet understood what an impression that afternoon and its flavours had made on me. You can also get a good feel for the restaurant and it’s food exploring it’s Instagram location tag, and for further reading on why Korean food is so damn fantastic in, and so very important to Los Angeles food culture I also really want to recommend Roy Choi’s book L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food. I’ve never cooked from it but I read it cover to cover in a Koreatown hotel room years later and it paints a fascinating picture of a food shaped by a city, and a city and culture shaped by it’s food. I thought of it now because it mentions Soot Bull Jeep as a beloved haunt. And while I’m on the topic, for further viewing if Season 1, Episode 2: Koreatown, Los Angeles of the late, great Anthony Bourdain’s documentary series Parts Unknown is on Netflix where you are (UK readers you’re all set) it takes another deep dive into the three square miles that make up Los Angeles’ Koreatown, its food, its people, its history and its culture. Truly fascinating viewing.