5 Korean Ingredients That Could Change Your Life in the Kitchen

updated May 1, 2019
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While many Korean ingredients can only be found in large Asian grocery stores, their popularity is making them increasingly easier to find in the Asian food aisles of more mainstream markets. But oh, what to get? You can always decide by using a recipe as your guide, but if you want to strike out on your own, here are five ingredients to experiment with that you’ll want to add to your shopping list permanently.

1. Gochujang

Gochu is the Korean word for chili, which is why many Korean products — gochujang (Korean chili paste) and gochugaru (Korean chili flakes) — have that prefix. Gochujang is a spicy, sweet, usually sticky fermented chili paste with deeply savory flavor. It’s central to many Korean recipes, but you don’t need a degree in Korean cooking to use it. Start by incorporating it where you’d use Sriracha: Stir it into soups, mix it into mayonnaise for slathering on sandwiches or burgers, or dab it on rice in your favorite rice bowl.

Since it’s quite thick, if you’re not using a specific recipe that incorporates other liquids, start by thinning it out with a bit of water, just until it’s pourable (or try the Chung Jung One brand, which now makes a squeeze-bottle version that’s super convenient). Your tacos will love it.

2. Salted Shrimp

Saeujeot, or fermented salted shrimp, isn’t an ingredient that you load into everything you cook; it has a strong, fermented odor that tastes, well, like fermented seafood. In small doses, though, it’s magic. Similar in flavor to Vietnamese salted shrimp paste, Korean salted shrimp can add the hallmark deep umami flavor to dishes that feel flat without them — and if used sparingly, makes food taste better, instead of fishy. Try adding just a teaspoon or two to a rice vinegar–based dressing for grilled or roasted vegetables, or use a little to add flavor to a stir-fry or dipping sauce. You can leave the tiny shrimp whole, or chop them up, as you prefer. Look for them in a glass jar in the refrigerated section.

3. Black Sesame Flour

Also known as black sesame powder, black sesame flour is just that — black sesame seeds, ground until they become a fine powder that adds the most amazing savory aspect to sweets. In Korea, it’s used in everything from cookies to cakes to ice cream. Try replacing 1/2 cup of all-purpose flour with black sesame flour when making chocolate chip cookies. (True fact: When you combine black sesame flour and chocolate, the resulting taste is strongly reminiscent of peanut butter.) If you’re in project mode, go savory: When you add 1/2 cup of black sesame flour to the dough when making pasta by hand, the sesame gives the noodles a gorgeous flecked appearance, with earthy sesame flavor built right in. Find the flour in the baking aisle.

4. Doenjang

Korean fermented soybean paste, or doenjang, is often compared to Japanese miso, but its effect is less subtle (think: blue cheese compared to cheddar). You’ve had it at Korean barbecue, in the form of that sweet, pungent paste you like to load on when you make little lettuce packets for your hot-off-the-grill beef. Used in small doses, it adds a ton of flavor — which is why you should start using it in soups, meat marinades, and sauces. Look for an unpasteurized version for the best flavor. Note that it’s often chunky, rather than smooth. On the shelf, it often comes in a small plastic box. For general use, get the unseasoned kind.

5. Korean Rice Cakes

You’ve moved beyond dried pasta and are now keeping rice noodles in your pantry — congrats! The next step toward hosting a diversified noodle operation is getting to know the firm Korean rice cakes, or tteok, which are, as the name suggests, thick little rod- or coin-shaped cakes of compressed glutinous rice, usually found in the refrigerated noodles section of Asian markets. Boil them up in soups — try traditional Korean rice cake soup on a sick day, and you may give up chicken noodle forever — or briefly soaked and then stir-fried. They’re chewier than other rice noodles, and last almost indefinitely in the fridge, which means they’re just as convenient as dried pasta.

Get a recipe: Quicker Spicy Rice Cakes