In his new cookbook, Jet Tila says, “I’m calling it here and now, gochujang is going to be the next super popular chili sauce and will soon replace Sriracha as the king of spicy sauces.” Sriracha aficionados, step aside. I’ve been in agreement ever since my love affair with the sweet, savory, and hot Korean chili paste began some years ago.
It all started the summer after freshman year of college while waitressing at Coco Noche, a wine and Korean tapas bar. The owner of the restaurant was from Seoul, and the moment I tasted her gochujang on a bulgogi rice bowl, I was hooked; a fire-eater in the making.
Nothing I ate would ever be mild again.
That first bite launched an ongoing obsession with any and all hot sauces. In college, Cholula was vigorously dumped on every bland dinner served at feeding time at the sorority. Post-college, in an effort to rid 4-years of mediocre food memories, Tapatio replaced Cholula. Tapatio had a good run before I discovered Valentina while eating a po’ boy sandwich in Austin. And it’s impossible for me to eat a bowl of pho without a profusion of chili oil and Sriracha. Does anyone really know what pho tastes like without hot sauce?
It was gochujang that ignited this torrid affair; the sauce that launched 1000 spicy mouthfuls.
You can imagine my excitement as we sat down to our first meal South Korea in July. I was as fired up as the grill on our table. All I wanted to do was slather as much gochujang on as much food as possible. As the waiter took our order of pork belly, brisket, and soju from a Korean BBQ spot recommend to us, I started noticing the plates of gochujang. And so our trip began as any good trip would: we ate.
The meal was, how should I put this…next-level delicious. The meat and accompanying sides, including kimchi, lettuce, glass noodles, mushrooms and heaps of gochujang, subsumed one another in glorious harmony. I found myself meticulously crafting each bite in order to achieve optimal deliverance to my mouth. It was so, so good.
Enjoying the little things in life, if we have the great fortune to do so, is essential. Taking the first bite of bona fide South Korean gochujang while sitting on a plastic stool, sweating over a burning grill was one of those moments of joy, one I’ll always crave.