Bowl of gochujang
Gochujang is a biting crimson paste that is indispensable to Korean cuisine. The word itself is self-explanatory, as ‘gochu’ means a special kind of chilli pepper, and ‘jang’ means paste. It brings flavour to different Korean dishes, including salads, stews and curries. It elevates the taste of the dish. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Sweet, deliciously spicy and a tad salty. That’s the best way to describe gochujang, a biting crimson paste that is indispensable to Korean cuisine. The word itself is self-explanatory, as ‘gochu’ means a special kind of chilli pepper, and ‘jang’ means paste. It brings flavour to different Korean dishes, including salads, stews and curries. It elevates the taste; you can even try it with a plate of chicken wings. You don’t forget it, ever.

Chicken wings and gochujang
A bowl of gochujang with chicken wings. This crimson-coloured pungent paste can blend well with a variety of dishes. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Jeong-Kwan, a monk at Baekyangsa Cheonjinam temple in South Korea, spoke to Gulf News via email, about the magic surrounding this pungent paste. There are a range of mouth-watering dishes that taste even better with a spoonful of gochujang, as explained by Kwan. “There’s the ‘chapssal gochujang,’ which is made by finely grinding glutinous rice and mixing it with gochugaru (coarsely ground Korean chili powder) and fermented soybean powder. It is fermented naturally for six months. It is commonly used in bibimbap, a mixed rice dish, and this kind of gochujang is typically made during winter,” she adds.

Jeong-kwan, a monk at the Baekyangsa Cheonjinam temple in South Korea. Explaining the temple cuisine, she says, "The ingredients for temple cuisine are natural, and can be seasoned with soy sauce or soybean paste when they are in season. Then, they can be fermented into gochujang," she says. Image Credit: Supplied

The amount of dishes you can add gochujang to is mind-boggling. You can even try the gochujang that is made with wheat flour paste. “Wheat flour paste is combined with gochugaru and jochung (a grain syrup). Wheat gochujang is typically made during the summer and used in stews, stir-fries, and jjangajji (pickled vegetables),” adds Jeong-Kwan. And then there is yak gochujang, which is consumed as a medicinal food. “It is made by adding honey to gochujang. The Yak gochujang is made along with ingredients such as beef or dried anchovies when stir-frying. It is used as a medicinal remedy for sick individuals, as they eat porridge and Yak gochujang when they are unwell,” she adds. Her personal favourite dish is musaengchae, which is a seasoned radish and greens. It is a mix of chamssal gochujang, gochugaru and jochung.

Bowl of bibimbap and gochujang
Bibimbap is a traditional dish from Korea, made from assorted cooked vegetables, white rice with gochujang, served with tofu and mushrooms. Image Credit: Shutterstock

While all these recipes and dishes sound delicious, there’s a lot more to gochujang, as Jeong-Kwan explains. This curious red paste is deeply entwined with Korean culture and the temple cuisine of the country. Gochujang is not just food for the monks especially; it has spiritual implications.

Jeong-Kwan summarises, “I believe humans derive energy from plants as they live their lives. Gochujang is considered to provide the heat and energy of the sun,” she adds.

The origins of gochujang

It’s commonly assumed that gochujang was first introduced to Korea from Japan during the Imjin War, which was the Japanese invasion of Korea from 1592-1598. The Japanese were said to have brought the red peppers from Central American countries with them. This belief was further fueled in 1984 by Lee Sung-wo, who decided to publish his theory based on the writings found in Jibong yuseol (the first encyclopedia in Korea, written by Jibong Yi Su-Gwan in 1614).

However in 2011, this was contested by Korean researchers and historians Dae Young-Kwon and Dai Ja-Jang. They asserted that the first fruit Japan introduced to Korea was the nammancho, a pepper in South-East Asia. The nammancho is spicy and almost a toxic plant, different from the gochu pepper, which was already being cultivated on the Korean peninsula.

A bowl of potato stew, with gochujang
A bowl of potato and meat stew, with gochujang. Image Credit: Shutterstock

The gochu peppers stand on their own as a completely different variety, according to research done by Dae Young Kwon in their article History of Korean Gochu, gochujang and kimchi. Gochujang and kimchi can be made only with gochu peppers. In fact, they assert that gochu had been cultivated in Korea for more than 1500 years and were not ‘brought’ by anyone. The Central and South American peppers are far spicier than the Korean gochu. It is possible that gochujang can be made with Mexican or Thai red peppers, yet they cannot be eaten as kimchi or gochujang owing to their extreme spiciness.

Jeong-Kwan asserts that Europeans and Westerners do not have a long history or tradition of consuming spicy peppers. “It cannot be said that gochujang has been influenced by Europeans and Americans,” she says. She adds that Korean cuisine utilises natural ingredients to create a wide range of flavours, and adds the spicy elements. “The use of fermented condiments like gochugaru and gochujang is common in Korean cooking,” she says, adding that as popularity of Korean cuisine expands, it is influencing the West, rather than the other way round.

Plates of chicken wings, rice, kimchi and a bowl of rice
Two plates of chicken, with a bowl of kimchi soup, gochujang and white rice. Gochujang has been deeply entwined with Korean culture and food for the past few centuries, and is said to provide the energy and heat of the sun. Image Credit: Shutterstock

What old Korean documents say…

So, back to the question, where did gochuang really originate?

Well, history always leaves its footprints behind even if the people don’t. There are tantalising hints of gochujang in ancient Korean historical documents. In the old Korean records detailing the era of The Three Kingdoms (years 233-297 BC), an island of gochu plantations is mentioned, according to Kwon. Another instance is the Chinese word representing gochujang, mentioned in the book Sikui-Simgam, a Chinese treatise published in the year 850 AD.

Even if not heavily documented, it is clear there was a growing popularity of gochujang. It also had medicinal purposes, as written by historian Cherl Ho Lee in Korean Food And Pathways: The Root of Health Functional Food. In the early records of the Korean Joseon dynasty including the Native Medicinal Prescriptions or Hyangyak jipseongbang, published in 1433, Korea’s first book on diabetics or Signyo Chanyo published in 1460, and a multi-volume publication of medicinal texts called the Euibang yuchwi, revealed that gochujang was introduced mainly as a medicinal remedy. In a passage published in Euibang Yuchwi, it is written, “When the spleen or stomach is weak and the body lethargic, make chicken or pheasant stew and boil it with gochujang.”

A bowl of gochujang
It’s commonly assumed that gochujang was first introduced to Korea from Japan during the Imjin War in 1592, which was the Japanese invasion of Korea from 1592-1598 AD. However, there have been several hints of gochujang in ancient Korean historical documents, which means that Koreans were cultivating it long before the 1500s. Image Credit: Shutterstock

As the centuries progressed, other records refer to gochujang by different names. The 1766 Revised Farm Management or the Jeungbo Sallim Gyeongje, a Korean book on agriculture written during the reign of King Yeongjo (1724 – 1776 AD) of the Joseon Dynasty, introduces gochujang as manchujang. The recipe detailed is almost close to the present day version of gochujang, barring the measurements. It reads, “To make a quick sauce, first pulverise makjang made from soyabean meju, and sift it through a sieve.” You are then expected to stir the makjang powder in gochu powder and rice flour, and then mix it with ganjang (soy sauce). “Pack the mixture into a crock, and set it into the sun to mature.”

Gochujang and temple cuisine

The taste of gochujang has been inseparable from Korean temple cuisine, as the oral traditions from the country show. According to historian Cherl Ho Lee, before Yi Seong-Gye became the founding king of the long-ruling Joseon dynasty in 1335 AD, he tasted gochujang paste at the Buddhist temple Manilsa in Sunchang County, North Jeolla province. Even if not heavily documented, this shows the presence of gochujang in the temple cuisine during the rise of Buddhism, which was around 372 BC in Korea.

The evolution of temple cuisine in Korea

Explaining how food itself became a crucial part of Buddhist practice, Jeong-Kwan recalls how Gautama Siddhartha (Buddha) practiced under a Bodhi tree in India, without sleeping, eating, or moving. Yet, even after six years of practice, he did not attain complete enlightenment. During this meditation, a woman named Sujata offered him a bowl of soup made from cow's milk. Revitalised by the soup, he realised that he could only achieve complete enlightenment through the consumption of food. “He understood that practice was not solely about asceticism but also involved the consumption of food. From that point on, food became an important aspect of Buddhist practice,” explains Jeong-Kwan.

Budae-jjigae with sausage tofu and canned ham
A Korean dish named Budae-jjigae, which is a fusion stew with baked beans and kimchi. It incorporates American elements such as sausage and ham, mixed with gochujang. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Buddhism was introduced to the Korean peninsula during The Three Kingdoms period (fourth to seventh centuries BC). By 372 BC, the Goryeo dynasty had adopted Buddhism as its court religion, according to Korean historian Seungsook Moon in his article Buddhist Temple Food and South Korea: Interests and Agency in the Reinvention of Tradition in the Age of Globalisation. Under the patronage of these courts, several Buddhist temples were built and there was a ban against meat. During the Silla reign (668 BC- 935 BC), the ban against meat was modified, and Buddhist temples spread tea-drinking as an essence of Buddhist rituals.

However, during the reign of the Goryeo dynasty (919 BC-1392 AD), there were new culinary techniques crafted for vegetarian dishes, explains Moon. Marinated and fermented vegetables were consumed along with soup, lettuce wraps and salads.

Gochujang with bibimbap, a mixed rice dish
A bowl of bibimpap, topped with vegetables and gochujang. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Things took a turn when Buddhism was suppressed during the accession of the Joseon dynasty (1392 AD-1910 AD). The new rule embraced Neo-confucianism, and imposed numerous legal restrictions on monks and they were not allowed into the main capital. Hundreds of temples were shut down, land was confiscated, and Buddhism was restricted to the countryside. Owing to this socio-political upheaval which left many Buddhists impoverished and marginalised, Buddhism began to focus on scriptures and meditation. As Buddhism no longer had the patronage from nobility, the luxuries of temple food and tea-drinking vanished and the temple food was reduced to rustic vegetarian cuisine.

Owing to this rather fractured history, Buddhist cuisine in Korea developed into a vegetarian diet, prepared and consumed by nuns and monks. The new idea of ‘temple food’ emerged as unlike other South-east Asian countries, Buddhist temples were relegated to mountainous areas, away from populous areas. Villagers and monks in Korea cultivated their own food, unlike other South East Asian monks who got alms from the villages.

Moreover, food in Korean Buddhism began to be conceived as a means of enlightenment. It was no longer seen as a bodily indulgence, but as a sense of nourishment, to sustain physical health and for medicinal purposes. This idea of food being an instrument of enlightenment, also highlights the beliefs of Buddhism. Meat is banned, as it involves killing life forms that are caught in the circle of life, death and rebirth.

Here are some kimchi recipes you can try at home:

Oi Sobagi or Korean-style spicy stuffed cucumber kimchi

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Crispy, savoury kimchi pancakes you can whip up in 10 minutes

Vegan kimchi recipe to make fried rice

Korean temple cuisine today

Kwan explains this principle of banning meat and says that as Buddhist practitioners take care of life and are concerned about other beings, practitioners do not eat meat, “Vegetables, like seeds, sprout and grow into flowers and fruits according to the seasons, and then turn into seeds again. They sustain life and are sustainable, living in one place without conscious effort,” says Kwan. On the other hand, animals live and have consciousness, so taking their lives means breaking the harmony. “‘You are causing my death. Experience death like me.’ It's a path that leads to the realm of suffering. Therefore, practitioners do not eat meat,” she says.

To create Korean temple cuisine, garlic, green onions, wild chives, and Asian chives are not used as they generate heat in the body and interfere with the practice, she adds. “Buddhist cuisine relies solely on vegetables, following a natural and vegetarian diet,” says Kwan. While there is no specific representative dish, it must be prepared in accordance with Buddhist precepts, and the food needs to be ‘soft and tender’.

“Practitioners respect life. Buddhism has been concerned about climate change and the natural environment for 2,600 years,” says Kwan. The ingredients for temple cuisine are natural, and can be seasoned with soy sauce or soybean paste when they are in season. Then, they can be fermented into gochujang. “The food is prepared to be gentle and is consumed when the ingredients are in their prime season,” says Kwan. “There is also a culture of making jjangajji (pickled vegetables) and storing them to be consumed during the off-season.”

The ‘good energy’ of gochujang

Gochujang locks in the ‘good energy’ for practitioners, as Jeong-Kwan says. “If the internal energy becomes too hot and rises, it can become challenging,” she adds. “However, gochujang and gochugaru release the heat outwardly, while also helping to regulate inner coolness.” This helps the practitioners in maintaining ‘good energy’. “This is why they consume dishes made with gochujang once a week,” she says. It’s all ‘magical’ for Kwan, as she describes how gochujang captures the energy of practitioners, who engage in static meditation.

Not just gochujang, the whole idea of Korean temple food is exquisite for Kwan. A lot is to do with how various natural ingredients create marvelous flavours, she feels.

An example of this, is the global bamboo festival, which is held in May and June, near the Baekyangsa Temple in in South Jeolla province, South Korea. During this time, newly grown bamboo shoots are cooked with soybean paste and served with gochujang. “The gochujang used in this case is called ‘cho gochujang’, made by mixing gochujang with vinegar and jochung, which is a grain syrup,” explains Kwan. “The vinegar is specially and naturally made from persimmons. The bamboo shoots marinated in gochujang are truly delicious,” she adds.

- Translation provided by E-Wha Kim, manager PR and Media at Korean Cultural center, Abu Dhabi, UAE

(Note: The story was first published on June 26, 2023)