Gochujang is a Korean chilli paste and an essential element of the Korean pantry. This sweet and spicy condiment is to Korean cooking what Miso is to Japanese – a widely used fermented soybean paste that adds a distinctive umami to the nation’s cuisine. Unlike Miso, however, it also adds a healthy helping of heat.
While the word gochujang generally refers to the paste, it’s sometimes used to describe gochujang sauce. This is a modified variant of gochujang that builds upon the paste in order to create a smoother texture and flavour that’s more conducive to dipping and dressing. Gochujang sauce is the red sauce you might stir into your bibimbap, or dip your Korean fried chicken into, for example.
The history of gochujang
For centuries, gochujang has traditionally been naturally fermented over years in earthenware known as jangdok (in fact, jangdok is Korean for earthenware), on a platform in a jangdokdae – an outside area designated specifically for fermenting food like kimchi and gochujang, as well as storing grains like rice.
Chilli peppers (or gochu) weren’t introduced to East Asia until the early 16th century, when Portuguese traders brought them over from the Americas. Prior to that, other varieties of spicy jang (meaning a sauce or paste) were already prominent in Korean cuisine. A reference to Korean 'pepper paste' is recorded in a 9th-century Chinese document. Historians assume that such pastes were made with black peppercorns and/or chopi (also known as Korean or Japanese pepper).
By the 18th century, gochujang (or gochojang) was well on its way to becoming the spicy jang of choice among Koreans who could afford it. Sunchang County in North Jeolla Province became particularly renowned for its gochujang production and still hosts the annual Sunchang Gochujang Festival to this day.
The festival’s location? Gochujang Village, of course.
That depends on whether you mean the paste or the sauce itself. Generally, gochujang paste is what you’ll find in shops. It tastes quite intense when eaten by itself – not unpalatable, but hot and sickly. You will need to add other ingredients to it to make gochujang sauce.
Traditional gochujang pastes also often contain barley malt. Shop-bought gochujang pastes may also contain other ingredients like corn or glucose syrup and additional spices, such as paprika or garlic powders.
In order to make gochujang sauce, you will need to add 3 more ingredients to the gochujang paste:
Sesame oil (to cut through the heat)
Rice vinegar (to balance with a sharper flavour)
Maple syrup (for sweetness)
Note that we’d recommend avoiding gochujang pastes that contain corn or glucose syrup wherever possible, but if it’s too late, you’ll want to skip (or at least cut back on) the maple syrup when making gochujang sauce.
Is gochujang vegan?
Both gochujang paste and gochujang sauce are almost always vegan. However, some gochujang pastes may contain other additives, so always check the ingredients if you have any dietary restrictions.
What if you can’t find gochujang available anywhere and need it for a recipe now? Well, you could try one of the following alternatives:
Miso and red chilli flakes. Like gochujang, miso paste is made from fermented soybeans, which gives it a similar umami flavour. Just mix in some fine chilli flakes (Korean if possible), for the requisite heat.
Red chilli flakes and soy sauce. Simply pour some fine red chilli flakes into a small bowl and stir in some soy sauce until you get the consistency of a thick paste, then sweeten with a little sugar. Not perfect, and doesn’t quite pack the umami punch you’re looking for, but a decent option if you really need to make something work.
Sriracha. If you’re really desperate, you could stir some soy sauce into some tomato ketchup (although, honestly, at that point you might be better off making something else). Thankfully, there is an East Asian ketchup that’s already a step closer to gochujang – Sriracha. Still, only for emergencies.
How to use gochujang
Gochujang can be used for stew bases, marinades, dressings, dipping sauces, mixing sauces, and glazes. Here are a few examples:
Bases: Use gochujang paste as a base for stews like budae jjigae (a Korean–American hotpot), Dakgalbi (stir-fried chicken stew) and tteokbokki (a flaming hot stew made with chewy rice cakes).
Marinades: gochujang paste is often used to marinate bulgogi beef and chicken, as well as Korean pork ribs.
Sauces: gochujang sauce can be mixed into bibimbaps or drizzled over baked or fried chicken. Gochujang paste is also a key ingredient in ssamjang – Korean barbecue sauce.
Dressings: You can use gochujang-based dressings as the perfect way to top Bulgogi bowls or spicy Soba noodle salads.
Glazes: gochujang sauce is used to glaze everything from chicken and ribs to asparagus and bean balls.
For us, few things benefit from a healthy dollop of gochujang sauce like Korea’s classic rice bowl, the bibimbap (which means 'mixing rice'). Whether it’s with bulgogi beef or tofu, and whatever the toppings may be, mixing some gochujang into that bibimbap – especially when combined with a runny egg yolk – just gives it a certain je ne sais quois.