The range of chili pastes available to the adventurous cook is almost inexhaustible and many countries have their own traditional styles for making them. Some are fairly simple, containing little other than chili and salt, whilst others typically contain other more complex additions. Many are fermented to some degree.
The primary Korean chili product is a smooth, umami paste known as Gochujang. The name simply means hot pepper paste and is clearly cognate with the Mandarin, làjiāo jiàng (辣椒醬). The basic paste is made with glutinous rice flour and fermented soybeans (often as a powder) with some sort of sweetener such as sugar or honey usually being added before being aged. The process produces a unique result that makes for a very useful and versatile product in the pantry…
This brand comes in a very handy and convenient little container and, as you can see, consists of a very homogenously smooth, deep red paste.
The container only has the words ‘Red Pepper Paste’ in English. The rear label is written Korean, which I cannot read, and Chinese characters. The latter presented a bit of a challenge, but I was able to decipher the ingredient list as containing the following:
Glutinous rice, Wheat flour, salt, Ground Chili, Syrup and Potassium Sorbate.
There is no mention of fermented soybeans, and instead wheat seems to be used, which seems to suggest that this particular product departs somewhat from the traditional method of production.
Appearance and Taste
The color of the paste is a lovely deep rich red, almost with a purple hint, and Gochujang is probably one of the prettiest of all the chili pastes in my minds. The aroma, on the other hand, doesn’t really suggest a chili paste at all. There is a faint sharpness and a pungency in the background but there is also a warm, umami quality that is somewhat like bean paste even though soy is not apparently included. It is a vaguely spicy aroma, but not with the clear chili presence of Malaysian or Chinese varieties.
The taste of the paste right from the jar is most definitely a chili one, however. It is moderately hot; much more so than Jalapeno, for example, but not quite as fiery as the Thai Bird’s-eye variety either. The paste is quite sweet, presumably from the syrup mentioned on the label, and there is none of the acidic notes one gets with long-fermented chili pastes, or those with vinegar added. This feature, along with the minimal amount of salt, allows the paste to be used in a few places where a sharp taste might not be desirable.
Really, you can use Gochujang in virtually culinary preparation calling for chili paste, and not having to make too many allowances for an excess of salt is a bonus. One of the important uses in Korean cookery (and one we have used it for more than any other here) is in the production of the various types of Kimchi and other pickles. The paste also makes a great marinade or condiment, either alone, or with the addition of such other things as vinegar and sesame oil. I will be using some of our present supply in some upcoming posts so, stay tuned….