There are so many hot sauces on the market that it might be tough to wrap your head around another one, but this classic Korean condiment is having a moment in the sun for good reason.
“Garlicky. Spicy. Fermented. Thick. Savory. Funky. Sweet. Umami.” These are a few of the adjectives its legions of fans use to describe gochujang, a fermented chili, garlic, and rice-based sauce that is enormously popular in Korea and becoming more so in America by the year. Here’s everything you need to know about the innocuous-looking little red tub you’ve seen at your Asian market.
Where’d It Come From?
“Immigrants often chuckle as they recount stories of stowing jars of doenjang and gochujang in their luggage during their migration overseas,” Andrew F. Smith writes about the two fermented pastes in The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink. Along with kimchi, it’s right up there as a staple of the Korean kitchen, and came to the states along with Korean immigrants—first to Hawaii from 1903 to 1905, then after the Korean War, and finally in a large wave between 1976 and 1990, after the 1965 Immigration Act removed national origin quotas.
What Is It?
Depending on the version you buy, gochujang will typically contain powdered chile pepper mixed with glutinous (sticky) rice, fermented soybean paste, corn syrup, salt, water, garlic, and sometime soy sauce, onion, or seed malt, along with other minor players such as preservatives.
How Does It Taste?
Lukas Volger, in his book Bowl: Vegetarian Recipes for Ramen, Pho, Bibimbap, Dumplings, and Other One-Dish Meals, suggests that it’ll appeal to those who like Sriracha. Expect a funky, garlicky, spicy, very slightly sweet taste. The spice level isn’t intolerable, which can be a welcome relief.
How Do I Use It?
Thanks to its funky, spicy flavor profile, gochujang plays nicely with steak, chicken, bibimbap (the classic Korean rice dish), mushrooms, and sturdy vegetables such as roasted or fried broccoli or cauliflower. You might spy it in recipes where you see soy, ginger, hot peppers, and honey, and keep in mind that typically you’ll want to cut it with something, such as garlic, oil, soy or sugar. Volger likes to stir it into mayonnaise, add it to deviled eggs fillings, and use it in all kinds of marinades and dressings. You can also use it as a marinade for chicken wings or Korean steak sandwiches, try it out with tofu or in a barbecue sauce, or make “mapo ragú,” a multi-culti mashup. If you’re using it as a condiment, start with dolloping a little bit into hot soups and stews, and avoid using it as a finishing touch unless you really love its raw, pungent flavor.
Where Can I Buy It and How Do I Store It?
Look for gochujang in your local Asian grocery, at specialty stores, at supermarkets with good international sections, and online. Chefs are such fans that they’ve started working on their own versions. David Chang sells a “Ssäm sauce” that is gochujang-based, and Kentucky-based Edward Lee, whose cuisine has a Korean influence, has consulted on a version for Chung Jung One. Just refrigerate it after opening and it will make a worthy addition to any well-balanced condiment shelf.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.