If you've ever been to a Korean restaurant, you've undoubtedly encountered gochujang. It adds the heat to bibimbap, lends the rich red color you see in tteokbokki, stir-fried rice cakes, and forms the backbone of ssamjang, the sauce most often served with Korean barbecue.
It also looks ferocious. Even the packaging does. Almost every container of the Korean paste is bright red, with pictures of chiles plastered all over the label in case you didn't get the hint. Pop open the container, peel back the plastic covering and you'll uncover a dark red paste as thick as tar.
This can make gochujang seem more like a dare than an integral component of the Korean kitchen, but it is far more versatile and complex than it might first appear.
WHAT DOES GOCHUJANG TASTE LIKE?
Sure, gochujang has heat - depending on the brand, it can be extraordinarily spicy - but it also has a salty, almost meaty depth and a slight sweetness. In other words, it's not a one-note hot sauce that you add to a dish after the fact. If you want to see Korean chefs bristle, tout gochujang as the "next Sriracha."
One of those chefs is Bill Kim, the owner of Urban Belly and author of the cookbook "Korean BBQ." "Why can't it be its own thing?" says Kim. "Here is something that people having been eating and using for centuries. It has its own distinct flavor. It's from Korea, not from Thailand or China."
He believes gochujang works best when mixed with other ingredients. "It's too intense by itself for most people, even for Korean people," says Kim. "At (Urban Belly), we always cut it with water, vinegar and sugar. You don't take gochujang and put it on a pork chop. You need to dilute it." He likens it to a "spicy miso paste," which can immediately add a depth to a dish.
What's gochujang made of?
Gochujang starts with meju, a brick of dried and fermented soybeans that traditionally takes many months to create. When his family lived in Korea, Kim's parents actually made it from scratch. The process starts with soybeans that are boiled and then formed together into blocks and dried.
But even if you happen to have some meju hanging around, gochujang still requires effort. To finish, the meju is mixed with gochugaru (Korean red pepper powder), rice flour, salt and maybe a sweetener. This mixture then needs to ferment for months. Considering how long it takes, don't feel bad about buying your own. Speaking of which ...
HOW TO BUY GOCHUJANG
It's easy to spot gochujang in a Korean grocery store - just look for those bright red containers. But if you're not fluent in Korean, figuring out exactly which one to get can feel intimidating. Fortunately, while most of the text on the container might be Korean, often there will be a sticker that lists the ingredients in English. Cheaper versions will have corn syrup and unpronounceable (even in English) ingredients in the mix. Kim recommends the brand Chung Jung One.
HOW TO USE GOCHUJANG
As mentioned above, gochujang is crucial to such Korean classics as bibimbap, tteokbokki and ssamjang. But that's just the beginning.
Kim uses it a lot in stews and meat dishes to add an instant depth and complexity. In "Korean BBQ," he has a very untraditional recipe al pastor that uses the paste. "(Gochujang) has the heat, the sweetness and it goes so well with pineapple," says Kim. "It's almost like an adobo marinade."
The paste provides a similar depth and sweetness to a recipe developed by "Dinner at Home" columnist JeanMarie Brownson, featuring country pork ribs slathered in a sauce made from gochujang, doenjang (fermented bean paste) and maple syrup. The meat doesn't even have to marinate; just slather it on, place it in the oven and, 40 minutes later, you have ribs with a wicked heat and a strong umami-laced backbone.
RED CHILE COUNTRY RIBS
Prep: 10 minutes. Cook: 40 minutes. Makes: 4 servings
This recipe for red chile roasted pork country ribs from "Dinner at Home" columnist JeanMarie Brownson is an excellent way to use gochujang. She suggests serving them "with plenty of rice and a small dish of kimchi made from cabbage or other vegetables. Save the leftovers for use in kimchi fried rice. Your life will be full of flavor!" Find that recipe here.
3 tablespoons gochujang
2 tablespoons doenjang fermented soybean paste (or pureed white beans and more gochujang)
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
1 teaspoon dark Asian sesame oil
2 to 2½ pounds boneless pork country ribs
Sesame seeds and sliced green onions for garnish
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil a baking pan or spray with nonstick cooking spray.
2. Mix gochujang, bean paste, maple syrup, sesame oil and 2 tablespoons very hot water in a large bowl until smooth. Stir in ribs; turn to coat them with the sauce.
3. Spread the ribs in the prepared baking pan, so they do not touch each other. Bake until tender when pierced with a knife, about 40 minutes. Serve hot sprinkled with sesame seeds and green onions.
Nutrition information per serving: 465 calories, 34 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 110 mg cholesterol, 16 g carbohydrates, 10 g sugar, 24 g protein, 680 mg sodium, 1 g fiber