Kochujang adds the heat to bibimbap, lends the rich red color you see in tteokbokki, stir-fried rice cakes, and forms the backbone of ssamjang, the sauce most often served with Korean barbecue.
It also looks ferocious. Even the packaging does. Almost every container of the Korean paste is bright red, with pictures of chilies plastered all over the label, in case you didn’t get the hint. Pop open the container, peel back the plastic covering and you’ll uncover a dark red paste as thick as tar.
This can make kochujang seem more like a dare than an integral component of the Korean kitchen, but it is far more versatile and complex than it might first appear.
Sure, kochujang has heat — depending on the brand, it can be extraordinarily spicy — but it also has a salty, almost meaty depth and a slight sweetness. In other words, it’s not a one-note hot sauce that you add to a dish after the fact. If you want to see Korean chefs bristle, tout kochujang as the “next Sriracha.”
One of those chefs is Bill Kim, author of the cookbook “Korean BBQ” and the owner of Urban Belly restaurant in Chicago. “Why can’t it be its own thing?” says Kim. “Here is something that people having been eating and using for centuries. It has its own distinct flavor. It’s from Korea, not from Thailand or China.”
He says kochujang works best when mixed with other ingredients.
“It’s too intense by itself for most people, even for Korean people,” says Kim. “At (Urban Belly), we always cut it with water, vinegar and sugar. You don’t take kochujang and put it on a pork chop. You need to dilute it.”
He likens it to a “spicy miso paste,” which can immediately add a depth to a dish.
Kochujang starts with meju, a brick of dried and fermented soybeans that traditionally takes many months to create.
When his family lived in Korea, Kim’s parents actually made the sauce from scratch. The process starts with soybeans that are boiled and then formed together into blocks and dried.
But even if you happen to have some meju hanging around, kochujang still requires effort. To finish, the meju is mixed with gochugaru (Korean red pepper powder), rice flour, salt and maybe a sweetener. This mixture then needs to ferment for months. Considering how long it takes, don’t feel bad about buying your own.
Speaking of which …
It’s easy to spot kochujang in a Korean grocery, Asian markets, even some supermarkets — just look for those bright red containers. But figuring out exactly which one to get can be intimidating.
Check the ingredient list — cheaper versions will have corn syrup and unpronounceable (even in English) ingredients in the mix.
Kim recommends the brand Chung Jung One.
As mentioned above, kochujang is crucial to such Korean classics as bibimbap, tteokbokki and ssamjang. But that’s just the beginning.
Kim uses it a lot in stews and meat dishes to add an instant depth and complexity.
In “Korean BBQ,” he has a very untraditional recipe for al pastor — pineapple and pork tacos — that uses the paste.
“(Kochujang) has the heat, the sweetness and it goes so well with pineapple,” says Kim. “It’s almost like an adobo marinade.”
KOCHUJANG PROVIDES depth and sweetness to a recipe developed by cookbook author JeanMarie Brownson, featuring country pork ribs slathered in a sauce made from kochujang, doenjang (fermented soy bean paste) and maple syrup.
The meat doesn’t even have to marinate; just slather it on, place it in the oven and, 40 minutes later, you have ribs with a wicked heat and a strong umami-laced backbone.
Brownson suggests serving the ribs “with plenty of rice and a small dish of kim chee made from cabbage or other vegetables. Save the leftovers for use in kim chee fried rice. Your life will be full of flavor!”
RED CHILI COUNTRY RIBS
By Nick Kindelsperger
- 2 to 2-1/2 pounds boneless pork country ribs
- Sesame seeds and sliced green onions, for garnish
- 3 tablespoons kochujang
- 2 tablespoons doenjang fermented soybean paste (or pureed white beans and more kochujang)
- 2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
- 1 teaspoon dark Asian sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons very hot water
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil a baking pan or spray with nonstick cooking spray.
Mix sauce ingredients in a large bowl until smooth. Add ribs; turn to coat them with the sauce.
Spread ribs in prepared baking pan so they do not touch. Bake until tender when pierced with a knife, about 40 minutes. Serve hot, sprinkled with sesame seeds and green onions. Serves 4.
Approximate nutritional information, per serving: 465 calories, 34 g total fat, 10 g saturated fat, 110 mg cholesterol, 16 g carbohydrates, 10 g sugar, 24 g protein, 680 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.