Packaged in red plastic tubs adorned with the geometric symbols of the Korean alphabet, gochujang, literally “chilli paste” in Korean, has become a staple source of chilli heat in my fridge. It is made by mixing finely ground sun-dried Korean chillies with a paste of flour, malt and soybean powders and rice syrup before leaving to ferment, and you can even make your own. Although it doesn’t sound all that appetising, the combination of chilli heat, sweetness and complex umami savouriness from the fermentation process makes it a cornerstone of many Korean recipes, typically in combination with soy sauce and sugar. It also has a glossy sheen that is passed on to the finished dish.
Gochujang is as ubiquitous in Korean cooking as more recognisable ingredients like soy sauce and sesame oil and while some Korean producers are seeking to market it in the West as a thick chilli sauce or easy stir-fry paste, really it’s a very versatile ingredient. Cooking with gochujang stains all your food a lurid red and is at home in stews, soups, stir-fries, dipping sauces or marinades. It can also make a reasonable substitute for hotter chilli sauces like in non-Korean dishes (I once used it in a chile con carne to good effect) if you’re willing to play fast and loose with authenticity! Some are predicting it to be the next big thing as far as spicy food is concerned. My favourite use for this flavoursome paste is combined in equal parts with soy sauce and honey in a sweet, salty and spicy Korean chicken and potato stew, a spicy version of the one I shared earlier this year.
At least one brand is usually available in any Chinese or generic Asian supermarket, largely I would imagine thanks to China and South-east Asia’s growing appetite for Korean culture, and according to the only taste test I could find there’s not much separating the different brands. It will also keep relatively indefinitely in the fridge once opened. Use it liberally to add heat (Korean chillies are mild), sweetness and the vivid red colour so distinctive of Korean food.
For ideas cooking with gochujang, try spicy Korean chicken and potato stew.