Gochujang is a spicy Korean seasoning paste/sauce. The ingredients include chili powder, fermented soybeans in the form of meju or meju powder, and sweet rice. The jang in the name indicates that it’s a sauce. Sauces are among the most important elements in Korean cooking. Gochujang was invented because of European ventures into the Americas in the 15th century. Those voyages led to Europeans encountering chili peppers. These peppers were exported to Asia around the 16th century. They were incorporated into Korean cooking and resulted in concoctions like gochujang.
Who exactly invented it appears to be unknown, but the first written record that mentions gochujang dates back to the early 1700s in the records of a physician named Si-Pil Yi. He refers to gochujang from a region called Sunchang that is still known for its gochujang today. Early on in its history, gochujang was considered a medicinal food consumed purely for health benefits.
As with most centuries-old condiments, there are regional variations.
Gochujang is made with the same kind of fermented soybean used to make another important Korean sauce called doenjang.
The concept of jang goes back centuries and includes multiple other sauces, including Korean soy sauce called ganjang.
The traditional way to make gochujang is by fermenting it in earthenware containers called onggi. The onggi fall into a category of earthenware called jangdok. The onggi are porous, so they allow in air, which creates the ideal environment for fermentation. These days, gochujang fermented in onggi is pretty rare, and you are not likely to see it in stores, even in Korea.
In recent years, Americans have learned more about Korean food and gochujang has an acquired a following in the US and other parts of the world outside of Korea. In Korea, it is not viewed as being as essential to the Korean flavor profile as other sauces like doenjang.
Gochujang flavor profile
The meju in gochujang is responsible for the sauce’s distinctive umami note, which sets it apart from other chili sauces. Meju is fermented with the help of bacteria called Bacillus subtilis which contributes to its flavor and the flavor of gochujang by extension.
Health benefits of gochujang
The chili powder and soybean in gochujang are responsible for most of its nutritional benefits. Largely because of those two ingredients, gochujang can provide nutrients like:
- Vitamins: Gochujang contains important vitamins like riboflavin and vitamin A.
- Protein: Because of the soybean component, gochujang contains a significant amount of protein.
A diet that contains regular servings of gochujang, may help to prevent or relieve health problems like:
- Cancer: Gochujang may help to fight cancer because of the capsaicin in the chili pepper, which is believed to have anti-carcinogenic properties. Other anti-cancer properties come from the soybean content.
- Poor gut health: The fermented soybean in gochujang may improve gut health like other fermented foods.
- Inflammatory diseases: The antioxidant ingredients in gochujang may help fight inflammation.
Gochujang does contain a lot of sodium per serving. Consuming too much salt can cause or exacerbate serious illnesses including high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease.
Along with being a staple ingredient in a lot of Korean stews, you will also see gochujang in marinades for meats and in classic dishes like bibimbap. Gochujang shows up in many dipping sauces, including in ssamjang which is a combination of doenjang and gochujang.