Back in the ’90s, I went to hear food writer Ruth Reichl speak. I don’t remember what she said about the hot trends of those days, but I do recall very clearly her lament about Korean food.
She had written about the cuisine of the tiny East Asian nation a few times, but even a platform as powerful as The New York Times, where she was the restaurant reviewer, could not push the cuisine onto the nation’s foodie radar. It was a puzzle, she said, because Korean food has several characteristics that you’d think would endear it to the American palate—succulent beef dishes and a signature hot sauce among them.
That commentary has come back to me over the years, whenever an article about Korean food appeared—inevitably to little notice. Several years ago, when a Korean restaurant popped up in a small strip mall here in the ’burbs, I wondered if Korean food had finally arrived. But nope, the place closed a few months later.
Now, in 2015, it seems as if Korean food is finally hot—or at least warm. I’ve been noticing a small but steady number articles and mentions on TV cooking shows, as well as notices of upcoming cookbooks.
One such cookbook is already here. Cooking with Gochujang: Asia’s Original Hot Sauce (The Countryman Press) offers a nifty introduction to that aforementioned hot sauce. Gochujang is different from the fiery Mexican salsas we love, from the stinging acid-inferno of Indonesian sriracha or the tangy heat of your favorite Buffalo sauce. It’s “a chili paste,” says author Naomi Imatome-Yun, “with a complex spicy, sweet and deep flavor.” Made from fermented chilies, soybeans, sticky rice powder and salt, it has the consistency of paste. A yummy paste.
This book of just 60 recipes includes instructions for making gochujang itself, but Iamtome-Yun notes that even in Korea, bottled is the rule. (Kind of like ketchup—only the most adventurous cooks would dare to make it.) Most of the recipes here use gochujang as an ingredient, and while traditional Korean dishes like bibimbap (rice with veggies) and kimchi bokumbap (fried rice with spicy fermented cabbage) are included, Iamtome-Yun incorporates gochujang into other ethnic cuisines—think LA-Style Chicken Quesadillas, Seoulful Cheese Dip, pasta sauce and even peanut butter cookies.
This is how an ethnic cuisine makes its way into the American kitchen—one easy-to-use ingredient at a time. Recall how teriyaki sauce, with its perfect balance of salt, sweet and brewed yumminess became the marinade ingredient a few decades ago. Back then, home cooks who would no more consider rolling their own yellowtail sushi than—I dunno, milking their own cows —were suddenly using teriyaki with abandon. And once we mastered teriyaki, we learned a bit about Japanese cuisine, and those home sushi kits started appearing.
Will gochujang follow the same trajectory? Will Korean food finally be recognized by mainstream America? Hard to say. But if it does, books like this will help make it so.