Gochujang: Origins and Use


Nearly every culture in the world seems to have some sort of hot sauce condiment or spiciness to complement their specialty cuisines. For some societies, hot sauces and spicy foods are more popular and part of everyday consumption. Other countries like Korea enjoy spice in their meals and it is often in the form of Gochujang.

Gochujang is a red pepper paste of thick texture and medium heat. It has a sweetness that comes from the starch of glutinous rice, but a commercially manufactured Gochujang will include corn syrups and sugar instead of rice to produce the sweetness. Generally speaking, Gochujang has a medium level of heat although it is available in more potent heat levels and spiciness.

Gochujang, Pronounced, kôCHo͞oˌjaNG is a hot sauce paste from Korea with a texture much thicker than American ketchup. It is used more as a cooking agent and not as a finish like other condiments, hot sauces, or pastes. To produce it Gochujang has a deeper involved process like fermentation, compared to other chili pastes like harissa or shatta that involve a mashed pepper paste. Similar pastes like a Japanese Miso or doubanjiang from China may also have equally complex processes.

Spicy food and peppers are a staple in Asian and Korean cuisine and have been for centuries. Over the past five years, Gochujang has gained popularity in the US and now it is produced both domestically and internationally. I can find Gochujang in my local supermarkets and have a couple of different brands to choose from. Asian cultural counterparts of a hot pepper paste such as doubanjiang from China, well as sauces from other areas of Asia, have similar sauces but are not gaining the popularity of Gochujang.

Where is it from and how was it invented?

Gochujang is a spicy red pepper paste that originated from Korea centuries ago according to korea.net. It was consumed before documentation revealed why it was consumed but like other hot sauces and paste was probably consumed for its bold flavors it added to meals. Further contemporary documentation provides information that Gochujang was consumed because the peppers were readily available, and they were believed to provide health benefits. The component responsible for the heat of a pepper, capsaicin, has proven to provide health benefits such as pain relief and increasing metabolism states webmd.com. Modern-day versions of Gochujang probably do not contain much capsaicin as some hotter sauces.

What is it made with?

Most commercially manufactured Gochujang will include a red pepper powder and are not made with fresh peppers like many hot sauces or other forms of hot pepper paste are. A sundried red chili is what provides the rich red color, flavor, and heat and is mixed with other ingredients that contribute to the paste form. Powders are a concentrated form of dried peppers that also add to the consistency but it is not typically one of the main ingredients. There are many ingredients such as soy sauce, garlic, salt and preservatives in commercially made Gochujang but these are the more traditional.

Soybeans

Many hot sauces use soybeans or soybean products in their bottled sauces. For a Gochujang, it is a mash of dried and fermented soybean. Fermenting food is not uncommon in many Asian foods and for Gochujang this is where the protein comes from. They also contribute to the thickness of the sauce and are responsible for the umami flavor profile.

Gochu

In Korea, a chili pepper is called a gochu which is where Gochujang gets its name from. Gochu meaning pepper and jang meaning seasoning. There is not typically any specific species of peppers used to make it like other pastes or hot sauces but there are hot peppers cultivated from Korea that have been used in traditional pastes.

Research shows that the hot pepper was brought to Korea by birds millions of years and therefore is native to Korea and has evolved into its own variety. No…they didn’t fly over with the pepper in their beak but probably consumed it and provided seeds from their excrement. Now, the peppers are grown in regions of Korea used specifically for hot pepper paste. However, the peppers are usually in the form of a powder from ground up sun-dried peppers.

Gochujang or Korean chili paste is made with much more ingredients than crushed red peppers like many other pastes are. Commercial brands will contain syrups and soybean and peppers, in the form of a powder, but the peppers may only be listed as the third or fourth ingredient.

Hot sauces from the US, Mexico, and other regions will generally list hot peppers as the first ingredient in the sauce. This will make the sauces much hotter and the flavors much different when compared to Gochujang. Hot peppers mostly contain water and this contributes to the consistency of a hot sauce but they are dried when used in Gochujang so this adds to the paste-like form. However, the main ingredient that makes the paste is sticky rice or glutinous rice.

Glutinous rice, sticky rice, or porridge

Glutinous rice is NOT rice with gluten or wheat in it. It gets its name from the glue-like substance that is created when it is overcooked. The name is misleading but glutinous rice is gluten-free, therefore the end results of Gochujang will be gluten-free as well.

Glutinous rice is where a Gochujang gets its sweetness from but commercially produced sauces will use brown sugar or sweeteners as a common ingredient. Brown sugar doesn’t necessarily replace glutinous rice but it can also add to the thickness.

Corn syrup, rice syrup, or brown sugar

Corn syrup or other types of syrup are used in hot sauces and sauces intended to be used with meats to sweeten the flavor against the spiciness of the peppers. They can thicken up a hot sauce or paste but were not what was traditionally used to make Gochujang. Brown sugar or sweeteners are also a common ingredient replacing the syrups used in a commercial paste or the glutinous rice used for traditional sauces. Sugar in any form is not uncommon in a commercial or homemade sauce.

What does it taste like?

Gochujang is often described as having an umami flavor profile. Umami is one of the five flavor profiles and is typically described as meaty or savory. Of the other flavor profiles, sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, only sweet and salty are evident in Gochujang.

How hot is Gochujang?

Generally speaking, Gochujang is only about a medium heat compared to some hot sauces although the level of heat will vary greatly depending on the brand. It typically has a Scoville of about 1,000 – 2,000 SHU and can be compared to the heat level of a Tabasco® sauce.

What is it eaten with?

Korean foods have their roots in the sauce states sciencedirect.com. Unlike traditional hot sauces that are meant as a finish gochujang and other pastes are usually mixed or cooked with noodles stews or meat dishes. It has a deep rich umami flavor of many levels that can contribute a deeper flavor to many meals.

The paste is also mixed with other condiments to expand on its flavor and is used as a marinade for meats. Gochujang Aioli is a condiment of mayonnaise and spices that is eaten with kimchi, Korean steak tacos, or burritos.

Is Gochujang a hot sauce?

Many condiments fall under the umbrella of a hot sauce. Within that label are also subcategories like salsas, pastes, and picante. They all have one thing in common and that is a level of spiciness to them from hot peppers or chili peppers.

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