One of my current culinary puzzles is why American home cooks have added Southeast Asian fish sauce to their pantries in droves, yet have not discovered gochu jang. Gochu jang is a Korean fermented chili paste, a rusty red condiment that most folks in this country first encounter — if ever– as the dollop of thick spicy paste on a bowl of bibimbap. If Middle America can embrace the funky, fermented umami juice that is nam pla, why have they not been turned onto the complex flavors of gochu jang? Maybe Korean cuisine just has a PR problem — though kimchi is now so popular that my local Italian deli now sells jars of it. For my money, gochu jang is going to be the bacon fat of this decade, the ingredient that becomes a ubiquitous flavor-punch tool, the secret weapon of hipster chefs and aspiring home gourmets.
Gochu jang is traditionally prepared in earthenware pots and fermented on elevated stone platforms. Most food references just acknowledge that its manufacture is a lengthy process and advise purchasing a tub from the local “ethnic” grocery store. What elevates gochu jang above hot sauces and chopped chilis is this lengthy fermentation. Much in the same way as browning a piece of meat adds layers of caramelly-complexity to a dish, so does fermentation create a paste with a low, sweet heat that lingers on the palate long after the food has been swallowed. I have been horrified to find some Americanized recipes suggesting that a pinch of red pepper flakes can substitute for gochu jang. That’s like saying cucumbers can substitute for dill pickles, or chopped tomatoes for a marinara. Mark Bittman probably comes closest by suggesting that tabasco or cayenne be stirred into hoisin sauce. But still, this stuff is its own food group. Don’t substitute – find a different recipe.
Gochu jang is added to many Korean stews and marinades. Indeed, I have found that if you get your hands on a jar, most of your guests will taste your dish, stare at you wide-eyed, and say that it tastes “just like a restaurant”. The only other time I achieve this effect is when I add unholy amounts of butter to pasta sauces. I could give you a recipe for marinated beef or for bibimbap, which would certainly be more traditional way to feature the magic of gochu jang. I am, however, going to offer a vegetable dish, one so good that it makes weekly appearances on our dinner table. I make this dish with spinach, but any greens from the garden or farmer’s market will do. I have no idea if this is an authentic dish…I found it in an “Asian” cookbook, and for all I know, it is the foodie version of “Oriental” chicken salad. No matter the provenance, it is very good, and never fails to please even the most die-hard greens-haters. It handily demonstrates how a secret ingredient (and not bacon fat or butter!) can make even humble ingredients sing.
Greens with Sesame Dressing
(adapted from Wendy Hutton’s A Cook’s Guide to Asian Vegetables)
3 tablespoons sesame seeds
1 1/2 pounds of dark greens (spinach, chard, mizuna, etc), stems discarded and washed well
2 cloves of garlic
pinch of salt
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon white vinegar
1-2 teaspoons of gochu jang, or to taste
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1. Toast the sesame seeds in a small pan until light golden and fragrant. Using a mug or a pestle, lightly crush them while still warm and set aside.
2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the greens, stir gently for a minute and then drain. Rinse with cool water and drain again, pressing hard to expel excess water. Transfer to a cutting board and chop coarsely.
3. In the serving bowl, pound the garlic with the pinch of salt into a coarse paste (I use a wooden spoon, some folks use the side of a heavy knife). Add the remaining ingredients and the crushed sesame seeds and mix well. Add greens and toss to coat. Serve at room temperature.