Gochujang is a Korean condiment but it should be a colour. Its intense, carnelian red hue is as much a part of its allure as the deep, rich, fiery taste. Henri Matisse would have painted pictures with it, Alexander McQueen could have designed a tartan with it. What I’d really like are some gochujang shoes and a fountain pen filled with gochujang ink. Gaping at a container of gochujang paste is as good for the spirits as a stroll in the sun. I can vouch for that, because I’ve been staring into my large tub of it, wondering how best to capture its particular beauty in words and I feel a lot better already. Like chicken noodle soup or a cup of strong tea, gochujang provides comfort to the glum and the weary. It’s also about to become achingly fashionable to a much wider audience.
Gochujang dates back to the 17th century. Large earthenware pots, or onggi, of red pepper powder, glutinous rice powder, soybean powder, salt, and water are fermented in the sun to produce what has become the most adored Korean condiment of them all. Most gochujang is now made commercially, but there’s a growing interest in making it at home, with blog posts and video clips online of enthusiastic cooks wrestling with vast saucepans and hefty wooden spoons, smiling happily as they recall the gochujang of their childhood. Its aroma provokes nostalgia with its distinctive, comforting overtones of fermented malt. Gochujang inspires fanciful language. The Korean American chef David Chang of Momofuku fame has virtually turned gochujang into a fable. He says that if you combine gochujang with doenjang, they produce a ‘love child’. This offspring is called ssamjang, the spicy bean paste vital for making bossam, delicious parcels of pork wrapped in Boston lettuce leaves. Chang’s inventive take on bossam includes extra quantities of gochujang than usual, and who can blame him? As he puts it, his kind of cooking is like having “one foot rooted in tradition and the other foot kicking it forward”:
“There is a great line from Emerson that sums up my perspective perfectly. ‘Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views ¬which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books.’”
The fire in gochujang comes from capsaicins in the hot pepper powder. A dab on the tongue produces a round, rich heat that lights up the mouth, without tweaking the nose as wasabi does. Of course, all the greatest inventions invite imitations, or at least adaptations. Maesil or Asian plum (the ume of umeboshi) gochujang is one of the most popular evolutions. It’s hot like its parent, but with a sweet, more acidic, vinegary taste. While claims have been made for gochujang’s health benefits, beyond its low fat and calorie content, they appear to be inflated. Suggestions that consuming capsaicins promotes weight loss are at best unproven, and in any case they miss the point – the true glory of gochujang is its taste, colour, history and poetry.
One of the most popular uses of gochujang is in bibimbap, the wonderfully named Korean dish of rice and sautéed vegetables, as well as in tteokbokki, the essential street food made with rice cakes. It’s also possible to stray from traditional Korean cuisine and get startlingly good results. Yellow pea soup with a trail of red gochujang on its surface and a scattering of finely chopped green chives is a culinary triumph, as well as a work of art worthy of Sir Terry Frost. A tomato and butter bean stew is pepped up perfectly with a spoonful of gochujang. A little more prosaically, fried bacon trapped between two slices of bread is exquisite with a little lettuce and a scarlet slathering.
Just as there are countless variations on the colour red, there are innumerable varieties of chilli sauce. Raking my eyes across the top shelf of my fridge, I find gochujang, harissa, Sriracha and Tabasco. In the interests of research, I line up spoonfuls of all four. Gochujang has a paste-like consistency similar to harissa. Without the cumin and the coriander, however, it has a much cleaner, fresher flavour. Sriracha is easier to pour or to drizzle, but gochujang has a much more developed, sweet flavour. Tabasco, on the other hand, is like an irascible politician – explosive heat and fury without much complexity. If I could only pick one, I would choose gochujang every time.
In case you hadn’t noticed, I admit to being a little obsessed with gochujang. I have a small bowl of it on my desk as I write this, and my children have been puzzling as to why I keep staring at it. I think it’s because it appeals to the five traditional senses. I love its look, its aroma and its taste. Even its sound as it’s dolloped onto a crispy bacon sandwich. Touch though? I’m afraid it’s let me down there. But a resounding four out of five is good enough for me. ■