This Korean condiment is spicy, sweet umami bomb that makes everything better

Yes, your kitchen needs this spicy, sweet umami goodness.
Yes, your kitchen needs this spicy, sweet umami goodness.
Image: Annaliese Griffin
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Whether or not you plan to watch any of the 2018 Olympics the location in Pyeongchang, South Korea is an excellent excuse to add a few Korean dishes to your culinary repertoire. If your kitchen is fairly well stocked—and by that I mean you usually have sesame oil, garlic, and ginger close at hand and scallions are no stranger to your fridge—but you’ve never made bibimbap or kimchi stew at home, it’s time to cozy up to gochujang.

Not quite a sauce in and of itself, gochujang is a fermented paste of chilis, soy beans and glutinous rice that lives at the crossroads of miso, siracha and ketchup. Like miso, it’s full of deep, umami flavors, with the kick of siracha and the sweet-salty balance of ketchup. It’s fairly thick and sticky, and too powerful to say, spread on a burger or glob onto fries. But it adds depth and spice to rice dishes, stews, and sauces of all kinds. In short, it really pulls the room together, from a flavor perspective.

Koreans stir gochujang into bibimbap and use it as the backbone for many braises and soups, like kimchi-jjigae, a simple, hearty kimchi stew, as well as an ingredient in sauces, like the addictive, deep red one that often coats Korean fried chicken. It’s an umami bomb with sweet and spicy top notes, which makes it ideal to play around according to your own kitchen proclivities.

Gochujang is inexpensive and easy to find at Asian markets, many grocery stores, and on Amazon. The different brands vary in how spicy and sweet they are. I’m partial to Sempio, which is spicy without being insanely hot, and less sweet than some other brands. Don’t confuse gochujang, which is a paste that comes in a rectangular tub, with gochujang sauce, a thinner jarred sauce that adds vinegar and often honey or some other sweetener to create something for dipping and topping. You can make the latter at home if you just order the paste, which is far more versatile. Here are a few ways, both traditional and of my own invention, to use this miraculous condiment.


If you’ve ever eaten a bowl of bibimbap at a restaurant and wondered if you could pull it off at home the answer is a definitive yes. Bibimbap translates to “mixed rice,” and the traditional format calls for little piles of spinach, bean sprouts, carrots, mushrooms, some kind of marinated meat—all topped with a fried egg, neatly piled on top of a bowl of rice and then mixed together. There’s no reason you can’t improvise though, and say, replace the spinach with those loose kale leaves malingering in the back of your fridge, nix the meat all together, double up on the mushrooms and replace the bean sprouts with matchsticks of crunchy cucumbers.

Bibimbap is one of my favorite kinds of meals, because you can prep all the toppings and place them in pretty bowls, make a big batch of rice in your rice cooker, poach some eggs and then invite friends over for a bobsled viewing party. It’s like taco night or make your own pizza, but potentially healthier. Yes, you could make bibimbap with brown rice, but I don’t recommend or endorse this course of action.  This excellent bibimbap tutorial from My Korean Kitchen explains how to cook everything, including a delicious meat marinade, has you prepare a gochujang sauce to dump over the whole mess.

At my house we’re lazy and just drag our chopsticks through a small bowl of the undiluted pepper paste and mix it in with the rice and egg yolk and meat juices to sauce the dish. Do as you will.

Beyond bibimbap

You can’t really talk about Korean home cooking without mentioning Maangchi, who The New York Times called “YouTube’s Korean Julia Child.” She lived in the Midwest as a young woman, where it was nearly impossible to find Korean ingredients and restaurants, and has since parlayed her ability to make Korean ingredients and techniques feel accessible to non-Korean cooks into serious YouTube fame. Today, she shoots videos from her apartment overlooking Times Square in Manhattan and has traveled around the world cooking and eating with fans.

Maangchi actually made gochujang with a fan in New Zealand, though if you watch the video of them doing this, you can see that it’s fairly tedious, and time and space consuming—and requires a large earthenware pot for proper storage and flavor development. Her recipes for spicy mixed noodles (basically bibimbap in noodle form) and spicy pork BBQ, both show off gochujang’s power ingredient status.

Gochujang’s versatility really shines when you start adding it to dishes that are not Korean. Mix it to taste with mayonnaise (start with your desired amount of mayo in a small bowl and add gochujang until it’s as spicy and potent as you’d like) and put it on everything from burgers to tuna salad. Add some sesame seeds and this is pretty much the special sauce at every poke place in Manhattan. Dissolve the pepper paste into melted butter, let that cool and then rub it all over a chicken and even under the breast skin before roasting.

The New York Times came up with a way to add it to meatballs, which sounds delicious. And though I’ll always be partial to a Bloody Mary that’s about half pickle juice, replacing the Tabasco (heat) and Worcestershire (umami) sauces with gochujang and the vodka with the Korean rice liquor, soju, is an excellent twist on a classic. Call it a Bloody Maangchi.

Bloody Maangchi

Mix (makes 4 servings):

12 ounces tomato juice

Juice of one lemon (more to taste, plan on at least two if they’re small)

2 Tbs. prepared (not creamed) horseradish

1 Tbs. gochujang

1 tsp. grated ginger

Black pepper to taste

Kimchi juice to taste (I’d recommend 2 Tbs.)

Combine the lemon juice and gochujang first, making sure to mix well so there are no lumps. Add the rest of the ingredients and allow to hang out for 30 minutes or more before serving so the flavors really come together. Give it another good stir before you assemble your drink.

To assemble:

Combine 2 ounces of soju and 4 ounces of the prepared mix and then pour into a glass filled with ice, or make a pitcher by pouring 8 ounces of soju into your mix.

Garnish with your favorite pickled items—I’d choose radish kimchi and pickled green beans here—and a lemon wedge.

Adventurous types may want to add a bit more kimchi juice to their glass, and if you’re finding this drink too sharp stir in ketchup a teaspoon at a time—the sweetness will smooth out the rough edges.