The Korean Condiment That Taught Me to Love Spicy Food

The Korean Condiment That Taught Me to Love Spicy Food

(Image credit: bottle: John T Takai/Shutterstock)

I'm Korean, but I grew up in northern Minnesota, where the food is fatty, comforting, and bland. I've actually known people to complain that there is too much cinnamon in the Lender's bagels.

In the 1970s, Korean ingredients weren't readily available and so my mother cooked what all the other moms cooked: lasagna, beef stroganoff, liver and onions, macaroni and cheese. The hottest food we ever had was chili, made "spicy" with a few extra dashes of black pepper that made all of us sneeze.

I always thought I hated hot food, even if, in my young adulthood, I suffered through habanero hot sauce and atomic wings (they were all the rage). I maintained my "I don't like hot food" stance vigorously until I went to Korea to for a year.

Author Marie Lee, just before earning her black belt.
(Image credit: Marie Myung-Ok Lee)

I stayed at my aunt's house and, because she assumed that my Midwestern palate was accustomed to bland food, she made me a special breakfast. It was an odd shredded wheat-type cereal stuffed with a chocolate paste and topped with warm, vacuum-packed milk that tasted a bit off. (I later learned Korean milk has the lactose removed, so basically I was drinking Lactaid).

As I noshed on my sad cereal, I started looking over with curiosity at the hearty Korean breakfast the rest of the family was eating. The stews with clams, meat, and tofu were all served in a thick red broth, the result of heaping tablespoons of a mysterious red paste.

No matter what the stew was, the paste went in. It went into the fried rice, too, and it's what gave the spicy rice cakes (ddukboki) — a street treat that, despite myself, I was beginning to like — their beautiful red color. The same red paste, mixed with fermented soy paste, was dabbed on grilled meat, and my Korean auntie used to dip a hot pepper into the paste as a snack.

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If you're familiar with Korean food, you'll know that the red paste I was seeing everywhere was gochujang. Made from gochukaro, or hot red pepper powder, mixed with sweet rice, fermented soy, sea salt, and water, it's left out in the sun for months to ferment. The result is a paste that's spicy, but not too spicy. Its heat is steady and predictable.

The secret to the sauce is twofold. First, as food scientist Dae Young Kwon explains in the Journal of Ethnic Food, Korean peppers are biologically different than peppers from Central America and Mexico. The gochu register at less than 1000 in Scoville Heat Units (SHU), while a simple jalapeño clocks in at anywhere from 2,500 to 10,000 SHU.

The fermentation period also comes into play. Not only does this process mellow gochujang's heat, but it also gives the paste a funky and complex flavor. As Robin Ha, author of Cook Korean!, notes, unlike another popular Asian hot sauce, Sriracha, which has more of a single-note, fluid hotness, gochujang has "a sweet, salty, and umami flavor as well as a very deep, starch note that becomes a great base to take on other flavors in cooking."

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All of this was unknown to me at the time; all I knew is that I came home craving that distinctive Korean hotness. It was the beginning of a long love affair with heat. I now have a huge tolerance for spiciness — I can't eat pizza without putting on about a quarter-inch of pizzeria hot pepper flakes on it first — but gochujang has become my go-to staple in my kitchen.

I love, too, that for my tender-palated friends, I can adjust the heat level so that, unlike, say, tabasco, it can work as a spice even for people who don't like spicy food.

And, as it was my first foray into the world of spice, it's nostalgic too. Sometimes, when I'm feeling a little down, it's time to retreat to the kitchen with my tub of gochujang. I'll gently fry kimichi with tofu, garlic, and vegetables in my Korean clay pot, add few gigantic spoonfuls of gochujang, water for the broth, and bring it all to a gentle simmer, finishing with some bright pieces of green onions like confetti.

Have you tried gochujang? Here are six ways to try this spicy condiment.

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