What debt could Korea possibly owe Cristoforo Colombo—icon, hero, villain, explorer, “discoverer” of the Western World? In a rather surprisingly straight-forward fashion, Colombo is responsible for the Korean Peninsula’s most precious and prodigious cultural commodity and modern-day export. Upon his return from the “New World,” little did the Italian explorer know that when he presented King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain with capsicum annum—the species of plant that includes peppers from bells to chiles—he was laying the groundwork for one of Korean cuisine’s foundational ingredients: gochujang.
Tea-smoked Australian Lamb Loin with Radish-Celery Salad photo by: Marcin Cymmer
Chef Bill Kim of BellyQ
Kimchi Linguini, Sea Urchin, Scallop, and Nasturtium Leaves
Chef Bryan Voltaggio of Range
According to the historical Korean text “Jungbo Sallim Geongje,” by the 18th century peppers had made their way through various trade routes to the Korean people, in whose hands the peppers underwent a funky transformation. Mixing fermented soybeans and glutinous rice flour with ground red peppers yielded an earthy, tangy, brilliant red paste.
Today, a building block ingredient for tacos, soups, sandwiches, bulgogi sliders, and even in omelets, gochujang is bringing color and character to many modern Western menus. Even Korean restaurants are bringing nuance to the gochujang game by making their own red pepper paste. Chef Hooni Kim of Danji, the fist Michelin star Korean restaurant, in New York City, is an advocate of this approach because an in-house gochujang program gives his cuisine a flavor distinct from all other Korean restaurants in Manhattan.
The recipe for gochujang has remained largely the same since its inception. Due to its origins in the backyards of Korean households, there are many slight variations. Before the introduction of mass produced gochujang, recipes would vary from region to region, town to town, and even house to house. Making your own gochujang requires earthenware pots; fermented soybean, barley, or rice paste or powder; a sugar, such as brown, cane, or rice syrup; spicy ground red pepper; glutinous rice flour; salt; and water. Direct sunlight and plenty of patience are also necessities when making gochujang. The ingredients are mixed, heated, poured in the pots, and aged at least two to three months, to the desired depth of flavor and signature rich red sheen. The pots must be covered at night and when it rains, and receive as much sunlight during the day as possible. Intense summer heat, however, should be avoided, and fermentation during the mild weather of spring and fall is recommended. Every few days the mixture should be mixed thoroughly. Even once you have achieved the perfect color and flavor for your gochujang, it will continue to ferment and change, unlike the consumer paste which is processed to halt fermentation.
Gochujang is bridging the gap between traditional and trendy. Since its first fermentation, it has become a spicy must of the Korean kitchen—a fundamental building block of the cuisine, along with soy bean paste, red pepper flakes, sesame oil, and soy sauce. But most importantly, without this potent red pepper paste, the condiment that exemplifies Korea and that has conquered much of America—starting with the West Coast—kimchi would not be possible. And consequently neither would Chef Bryan Voltaggio’s Kimchi Linguini or Chef Bill Kim’s Radish-Celery Salad with Gochujang and Tea-Smoked Lamb Loin. Fortified and fermented, the pepper triumphantly returns to the Western World in the kitchens of these accomplished and inventive chefs.
“[Gochujang] is part of me. I grew up with it and I always like to cook from my heart, to be soulful, and to reveal part of my tradition. It’s perfect for the spice and richness that I look for when I'm cooking,” says Kim, chef and owner of the fast-casual fantasy trio: Urbanbelly, Belly Shack, and BellyQ in Chicago. Kim emigrated from Seoul to the United States when he was 7. The flavors of his childhood permeate his imaginative and internationalist menus. Gochujang is an important ingredient in his kitchens because, “it adds layers of flavor that you can't get from anything else—earthy, spicy, pungent,” explains Kim. For his Radish-Celery Salad, Kim combines sweated garlic, shallot, and ginger with fish sauce, soy sauce, vinegar, sundried tomatoes, black beans, jalapeños, and gochujang and emulsifies the umamisized mixture with oil before tossing with radish and celery and serving with tea-smoked lamb.
A native of Frederick, Maryland, Voltaggio’s connection to gochujang is through imagination alone. It’s an imagination that has helped him build his Washington, D.C-centralized series of restaurants: Volt, Lunchbox, Family Meal, and Range. At Range Voltaggio combines puréed kimchi with eggs and “00” and semolina flours to create a linguini that would make Colombo proud. He serves the thoroughly modern noodles with sea urchin, scallop, and nasturtium leaves.
A little bit of the potent red pepper paste packs a wallop of flavor into almost any recipe with the addition of less than a dollop, usually. Every tablespoon is cost affective. And commercial gochujang is widely available, from Amazon to the local Korean grocer round the corner, with prices that start around $9.00 per kilogram. Look out for those red and gold tubs.
Gochujang may not yet be the new ketchup, but with chef-explorers like Voltaggio and Kim discovering new applications everyday, Korea’s prized, proud red pepper paste may soon be King Condiment of the New World (of flavor). Stay funky star chefs.