Archive for the ‘Home Cooking’ Category

Mom’s Yams

October 22, 2012

My passion for cooking arises from the curiosity of learning about foods from other cultures and expanding my knowledge in order to improvise how I can complement other foods with those of my Mexican background. Last week, I tested Goguma-matang or candied sweet potatoes that reminded me of a Mexican dish; camotes is a classic that my mom makes often. This is because the diversity of this dish with its mushy potatoes, sweet golden flavor with a touch of cinnamon allows it to be a light dessert after a meal, a sweet snack before bedtime with a cup of milk, or just a simple anytime treat to satisfy that sweet tooth.

I called my mother to ask her for her recipe and I more than ever understood Diane and Grace’s goal in trying to put together a cook book; not an easy task, but definitely worth all the effort. You see, like many housewives, my mother easily spends more than half her day in the kitchen, cooking every day for our large family. Her experience no longer requires her to use measuring cups or keep track of how long something has been cooking for. It’s as simple as “When it’s done, it is done.” Therefore, while asking her for the recipe, I ran into the frustration of what happens every time I need a recipe: I have to stop her after each second to ask how much, how long, or simply how! Luckily, my mother happened to be making her camotes when I called her for the recipe, making it a lot easier to get more accurate guidance. I would like to share her recipe with you:

Los Camotes de Mamá de Maria

Los Camotes de Mamá (Mom’s Yams)
Serves 8

2 large piloncillos (you can substitute ¾ of a pack of brown sugar)
1 stick of cinnamon
2 cups of water
6 medium-sized yams

  1. Wash yams well.
  2. Cut the yams into thick pieces, about 2 inches wide, and leave the skin on. (My mom likes to cut the yams horizontally in large ovals.)
  3. Combine all ingredients (piloncillos, cinnamon, water and yams) into a medium-sized pot.
  4. Allow mixture to come to a boil.
  5. Lower the temperature to medium-low heat and cover with a lid.
  6. Cook for about 1.5 hours or until the potatoes are tender.
  7. Remove the lid and allow sugar to thicken by raising the temperature to medium high for about 10 minutes, but do not allow the sauce to become too sticky.

Holiday Gift Guide for the Korean Food Lover & Cook

November 28, 2011

This is a totally shameless ploy for traffic but I couldn’t resist. And honestly, it can be a pain in the ass to get the right equipment and ingredients for Korean cooking, which means if you go to that extra trouble, you will be extra-appreciated.

Some of the items below are linked to Amazon. The others are linked to various other stores. Unfortunately, I’ve never ordered from them, so I can’t vouch for them. If you have a Korean grocery store of any serious size in your area, though, you should be able to find most of these items there as well.

Rice Cooker

A great cook should be able to make great rice with a pot and a stove, but when you’re juggling pots and pans on all four burners, it really sets my mind at ease to know my rice is cooking away perfectly, without a care in the world. I’ve never owned a super-cheap rice cooker, but I’ve been served good rice made with ones that look like this, and it’s still better than hovering over a pot on your stove.

If you want to splurge and get a gift that is hard to get yourself (if you are not me), it’s worth getting a fancy one that can make brown rice, rice with barley, rice with beans, etc. Zojirushi is the BMW of rice cooker makers, well-regarded and expensive. Somewhat cheaper, though still pricey, are the ones made by Sanyo. I can’t compare the two brands because I’ve never had a Zojirushi, but I cannot imagine living without my 10-cup Sanyo. 10-cup is better than 5-cup if you anticipate cooking for more than 4-6 people at a time.

Good Knife

As our recipe-testers have learned, Korean cooking requires a lot of knife work. All that chopping is infinitely more enjoyable if you have a good knife. There are others who can speak more intelligently about different kinds of knives, but for me, when you need to cut into giant Korean radishes and heads of Napa cabbage, the heft of a German-style 8-inch chef’s knife is the way to go. My mom bought me a Henckels knife similar to this one over 10 years ago and it is still going strong. That said, a knife is a very personal thing, so it might be best to get a gift certificate for $80-$100 at a nice kitchen store, and have the Korean cook in your life go and try holding different ones. This will also avoid the bad luck Chinese people believe you incur when you gift a knife.

While you’re at it, get a cheap honing steel as well, and if you’re feeling particularly generous, a knife skills class.


A mandoline is not an excuse for not developing knife skills, but man does it make your life easier! It will transform your feelings about making any sort of Korean salad that requires you to cut hard, rooty vegetables into thin matchsticks. The Benriner is cheap, sturdy, and does the job.

Korean Clay Pot

As much as I love a good dolsot bibimbap, or mixed rice and vegetables in a stone pot, the stone pot is not must-have home equipment since it’s really only good for that one dish. A clay pot is much more versatile. A small clay pot full of spicy tofu stew, or kimchi stew, or soybean stew bubbling away on the stove is really a beautiful sight. (Mmm, how about a lovely, jiggly steamed egg custard?) You don’t have to have a clay pot to make a good Korean jjigae, but it’s traditional and it’s practical since it means you can move the stew straight from the stove to the table. (Given how many dishes you have to wash after a Korean meal, one less pot is important!)

Large Wide-Mouthed Glass Jars

If you’re serious about making your own kimchi, you need some proper equipment. My mom says that kimchi made in a traditional clay jar, aged outside in the cold air of late fall/winter really does taste the best. That said, she uses giant plastic containers that fit perfectly into her kimchi refrigerator. I don’t make kimchi in such huge quantities, but if you’re going to make some, you should make more than a tiny jar for two reasons. One, the kimchi tastes better when it’s ripening in a large quantity, and two, it’s just too much work to do for so little output.

The containers need to be airtight. Plastic works fine, and I own a couple of big rectangular containers with lids that lock down. But glass looks better, and although I might be imagining it, I think it tastes better, too. I normally ferment two to three pounds of cabbage or radish at a time, and if I want to pack all the kimchi in one container, I need anything from a half-gallon to one-gallon container. These hermetic glass jars aren’t perfect, because the mouths are a little narrow, but they’re the best ones I’ve found so far in the U.S.. The 2.1 quart and 3.2 quart jars are probably most versatile.

Giant Bowl

It’s practically impossible to salt vegetables and add seasoning in a normal-size mixing bowl. I have a very broad, flat bowl that holds 22 quarts or so that I bought at a Korean grocery store for $15. It doesn’t fit in any of my cabinets so it sits upside-down on top of my refrigerator. It’s ugly, I don’t care. That’s how much I need it.

I have no idea what these bowls are like, or how reliable the online stores are, but it looks like restaurant supply stores are a good place to find 20-quart broad bowls if you don’t have a large Korean grocery store near you.

Plastic or Rubber Gloves

I find this image weirdly terrifying, and plastic gloves are the most unromantic gift possible, but they are so useful. I had a hell of a time finding them in regular grocery stores. I should probably just recommend that you buy a pair of rubber gloves.

Korean Ingredients

I can’t really recommend that you buy some fancy gochujang or soy sauce because even though the quality really matters, it’s not like you’re going to be able to find anything really special outside of Korea. Still, if you know someone who has no idea how to navigate in a Korean grocery store, it would be sweet to get a tub of gochujang and put a red ribbon on it! This was our favorite from our taste test. Other key condiments and pastes: doenjang or fermented soybean paste (this one is the same brand as our favorite from our taste test), Korean dark soy sauce, and Korean soup soy sauce. Maybe you could make a little starter Korean cooking set!

I would be pretty happy if someone bought me some fancy, expensive Japanese rice. Or if you want to be creative, how about a bag of black rice? If you add half a cup of black rice to 2.5 cups of white rice, you end up with gorgeous purple rice with a subtly new and exciting flavor. You can get a 2-pound bag for $8 at a Korean grocery store, or you can pay over $20 for 15 ounces of “forbidden rice” from Lotus Organic Foods. I am not pooh-poohing the organic stuff, which I have never tasted — it might be worth it!

Awesome Korean Mini-Series About Royal Palace Cooking

I lost a good chunk of my life to watching all 54 episodes of Dae Jang Geum, an epic Korean mini-series set in the 15th and 16th centuries. It follows a young girl who struggles between the need to avenge her parents’ death by becoming the Royal Kitchen Lady and the desire to follow her own dreams, including the possibility of romance with a young scholar who is so attractive, he looks good even in those traditional hats with the mesh screen across the forehead.

It’s melodramatic and riveting, with expansive scenes of hundreds of royal kitchen maids preparing elaborate and luxurious meals. The show was popular all over the world — just look at the names of the people posting to this Facebook group. (Serra Ozgiray, Paula Fernandez, and Devina Patel on the first page!) I think it actually says something about how universal her struggles are, especially to people in cultures that value collective traditions but who also yearn for greater individual freedom.

You can find it here, but do not only buy Volume 1. You will kick yourself when you get to the end of it and the next DVD is not ready to pop into the player.

Stocking Stuffers

If you don’t want to spend $100 on all 3 volumes of Dae Jang Geum, you could get a stocking stuffer or two.

Standing Rice Scoop

This is just genius. All nice rice cookers (see above) come with a little pocket on the side of the machine to hold the paddle. But if you don’t have such a wonderful machine, you end up putting the paddle down and the rice gets all over the counter. This standing paddle avoids the mess.

Japanese Grater

Most of our recipes call for grated, not minced, ginger. It imparts nicer and juicier flavor. I don’t own this one or this one, but I wish I did.

Chopstick Rests

Chopstick rests are pretty useless, but they can be so fun. I got these “peas in a pod” chopstick rests for Diane last year. As a Korean who loves Korean food, she can attest that she loved them!

The elephant in the room, of course, is the question, “What is the best Korean cookbook?”

Diane and I wholeheartedly hope and believe it will be available next year!

The bodice-ripping romantic hero of tofu

October 12, 2011

The Bridge: Firm, yet Tender.

(New tofu at my grocery store–it’s a little too firm for my taste, but the lack of moisture means it’s very easy to stir-fry.)


How many dinner guests does it take to make patbingsoo?

August 3, 2011

After a very long hiatus, I did a test-drive Korean Sunday Dinner this weekend. I made cold soybean noodles and braised pork belly, and we all laughed and drank a lot of baekseju and bourbon. And then I decided to present dessert, shaved ice with red beans and berries and condensed milk: patbingsoo!

Except my ice shaver wasn’t cooperating. And we decided we had to get up to see what was wrong. The only one smart enough to realize bending over and staring at it was not going to help was the friend who, laughing in the corner, took this picture.

We did manage to get it to work well enough in the end, and all of us ate a small but precious mound of shaved ice. I’m facing a month of work for travel, but so excited to start cooking again in the fall.

When tofu almost happens

March 22, 2011

Gratuitous cute photo of my father at a tofu restaurant in Gangneung.

The World Institute for Kimchi is a relatively new organization funded by the Korean government. The director, Park Wan-soo, has declared that it will determine how best to artificially insert bacteria into kimchi, so as to precisely control fermentation. If they know how to make kimchi taste exactly the way they want it to, they can create the ideal kimchi for export. For the US, the goal is to “tone down the spiciness and sourness,” for Japan, to “heighten the sweetness.”

It’s not really my place to say this to the World Institute for Kimchi, but I have to. They’ve missed the whole point.

As fewer people make kimchi at home, and in general, as fewer people cook at home in every culture, there are many things that are lost: family recipes, history, the taste of your mother’s hands.

But to me, the biggest reason to cook at home, and especially to engage in a process as amazingly unpredictable as fermentation, is to remember in the most fundamental way possible that there are some things we can’t control. In Wild Fermentation, Sandor Ellix Katz‘s manifesto on the human need for fermented food, he argues that fermentation is a way for us to combat a culture that is obsessed with “terrified of germs and obsessed with hygiene.” Katz, a white hippie and AIDS activist living in rural North Carolina, seems to get something Koreans, who practically invented fermentation, are maybe starting to forget. The flavor of kimchi depends on temperature, moisture, the sweetness of the cabbage, the brightness of the hot peppers, a thousand variable factors. It’s not hard to make, and yet my mother, with 50+ years of experience behind her, still never knows exactly how her kimchi will turn out. That’s why each batch is a minor miracle.

When life feels hard and tragic, the minor miracles are more important than ever.

So this is how I’ve broken almost six months of writer’s block. So sorry, I didn’t intend to write my own manifesto. Rather, I wanted to tell you about my attempt to make tofu with Youngsun Lee, an extraordinary chef and wonderful person, how it didn’t quite work out, but that it was fun anyway.

I met Youngsun, of whom I am in complete awe, about a year and a half ago, when he generously volunteered to teach a kimchi-making class for a KAPA fundraiser. I’m proud to say that I consider him a friend, and because he has done so much for me, I was happy to do something small for him: bring back some gansoo, or tofu coagulant, back from Korea. And last December, he and his wife Amie, along with my friend Danica, decided to try it out.

Tofu is essentially curdled soymilk. First, you soak dried soybeans overnight, at least 10 hours. Then you rub off their translucent skins. Puree the beans with water, at about a ratio of 1:2, beans to water. (I imagine my poor ancestors just pounding away without a blender.) Then you strain the pureed soybeans, and the liquid that exudes is soymilk.

Next, you heat the soymilk. When it’s at about 80 degrees Celsius, just before boiling, you add a tiny bit of gansoo. We experimented with differing amounts, but a little bit, about half a tablespoon for 5 cups soymilk, went a very long way. Then continue heating and bring to a boil, turn off the heat, and let it sit for a couple of minutes.

Gansoo is another example of something that traditionally, you don’t create through an industrial process. You can use Epsom salts, which are easily obtainable in the US, or Japanese nigari which is magnesium chloride, but traditionally, it’s what’s left when you extract salt from seawater. We tasted a drop each, and it was the single most bitter thing I have ever placed on my tongue. I would find it hard to believe that this magic coagulant is basically seawater, except that’s what we were told in Gangneung, a town on the eastern coast famed for their pre-tofu or sundubu. Everywhere we went, my mom asked the restaurant owner where we could get some gansoo. They just looked at her blankly and said, “Just go out in the middle of the ocean.”

As soon as you add a bit of gansoo, you’ll see the soymilk start curdling immediately. Our curds were small, but I imagine that by fiddling you could make those big, luscious curds that make me crazy at Japanese izakayas.

You then shape the curds into a block to set. Ideally, you would use a perforated mold. I just had a bamboo steamer and some cheesecloth, which didn’t faze Youngsun at all. He just bandaged up the curds into a neat blob, and then put a pot on it as a weight to press out the liquid.

After about 15 minutes or so, the block had solidified, but it wasn’t like the very firm tofu you see in grocery stores, the kind you could practically run over with a truck. It was still quite tender. It made me feel quite tender towards it.

The reason why we “almost” made tofu? For some reason, the soybeans I bought at Hmart on 32nd St. resulted in tofu with a bitter, very unpleasant flavor. When we skipped the soybean step and instead used very fresh soymilk Youngsun had bought in Long Island City, the tofu was much better.

Even so, our last batch wasn’t great. But Youngsun wasn’t too perturbed. He and Amie went off happily enough with the leftover gansoo, and I got the feeling they were going to go through another couple of rounds.

So this post isn’t one of those informative, “How to make ___” blog posts that will get many thousand hits.

(The most I can do for you are some how-to photos of photos from a tofu restaurant in Gangneung.)

Still, I really did have fun. We ate an impromptu lunch of leftover lentil-chipotle soup and homemade brown bread, and Amie praised both rapturously while teasing her husband about how he should bake bread at home, too. It is enormously gratifying to have the wife of a chef tell you that she likes your homemade cooking!

But more importantly, I saw a side of tofu I had never seen before. I love tofu, whether it’s custardy and pure with a dab of soy sauce or whether it’s mashed into pork for tender meatballs. But I hadn’t really appreciated how special it was until I saw that tofu doesn’t always happen. It’s strange to think making something that doesn’t turn out quite right can restore your faith in life. But it did and it does.

Mandu Wrapper Taste Off

January 27, 2011

In celebration of the New Year, I decided to make some mandu (aka mandoo or Korean dumplings) – only to walk into the Asian supermarket and find too many brands of dumpling wrappers. Not knowing anything about the different brands, I picked three to test:

New Hong Kong Noodle Company Pot Sticker Wraps

1) New Hong Kong Noodle Company Pot Sticker Wraps: 34 wrappers in the package, each 3.65 inches in diameter. These wrappers were obviously thicker than the other two. They held their shape fairly well as they were stuffed, unlike the other two, which were more prone to ripping.

Gyoza Skins

2) Gyoza Skins: 46 wrappers in the package, each approximately 3.4 inches in diameter. These wrappers were very thin, and I had to take care not to rip them.

Assi Brand "찹쌀" Jumbo Dumpling Wrapper

3)  Assi Brand “찹쌀” Jumbo Dumpling Wrapper: About 24 wrappers per package, each 4 inches in diameter. In Korean, 찹쌀 is glutinous rice. Would this “special ingredient” affect the texture and flavor of the wrappers? I was eager to find out. While making the dumplings, I found these to be a bit too big and more unwieldy than the other two.

I thought that the best way to test the wrappers would be to cook them using three common methods: steaming, pan-frying and boiling.

Steamed dumplings. Clockwise from top left: Pot Sticker Wraps, Gyoza Skins and Jumbo Dumpling Wrapper

I love steamed dumplings – unadulterated by oil or by too much water. I couldn’t tell if the Pot Sticker Wraps and Gyoza Skins were completely cooked through because their edges remained opaque and white. However, the durable Pot Sticker Wraps resisted sticking to the steamer while the other two didn’t resist, stuck to the steamer and ripped when they were taken out. In terms of taste, the Pot Sticker Wraps were tough and hard, while the other two, despite the tears, were soft and moist. Taste trumped presentation. Round 1 winner: Gyoza Skins (they held together better than the Jumbo Dumplings).

Pan-fried mandu. Clockwise from top left: Pot Sticker Wraps, Gyoza Skins and Jumbo Dumpling Wrapper

That I love steamed dumplings doesn’t mean that I don’t also love the crispy yumminess of pan-fried dumplings! And perhaps there’s nothing that a tablespoon of canola oil can’t improve as all three wrappers were tasty. But the Pot Sticker Wraps remained tough, while the Gyoza Skins and Jumbo Dumpling Wrapper mandus looked (crispy and translucent) and tasted delicious. Winners: It’s a tie! Gyoza Skin and Jumbo Dumpling Wrapper.

Boiled mandu. From top to bottom: Pot Sticker Wraps, Gyoza Skins and Jumbo Dumpling Wrapper

For me, the mandus pictured above seem lonely bobbing around in broth without the chewy company of rice cakes (tteok). But I shouldn’t complain as they still tasted good. The Pot Sticker Wraps got points for consistency: that is, in all three trials, they remained tough and chewy. The Jumbo Dumpling Wrapper tasted a bit too flour-y and it was so loose that the stuffing seemed to get lost inside. The Gyoza Skins, on the other hand, were perfect: slippery, noodle-like in texture, vacuum-packing and becoming one with the stuffing.  Winner: Gyoza Skins.

This post is by no means a definitive mandu wrapper tasting and testing, but hopefully, it is a good start. My winner that day were the Gyoza Skins, but I vacillated a lot between them and the Jumbo Dumpling Wrapper. Did the glutinous rice make a difference at the end? Not for me. People who like chewy and tough will certainly prefer the Pot Sticker Wraps.

101 Korean cold noodles

July 31, 2010

I’m not sure I really have 101.  I once got A’s in calculus, but given how long it takes me to calculate a tip now, just follow me and see if my calculations make sense to you.

With the never-ending heat wave that has been summer in New York this year (and summer in Russia and summer in Japan), cold noodles have been the only food I can stand to eat.  Some of them are classic Korean preparations, some of them are riffs, all of them only require that I turn on the stove just long enough to bring a small pot of water to a boil so the noodles can cook through.  Asian noodles have an added benefit — they’re done anywhere from 45 seconds to 4 minutes.  And if you choose carefully, some of the packaged versions at Korean grocery stores are quite good, without any of that chalky MSG taste.

(I love the Pulmuone line of organic noodles packaged in bags, though they are a little pricey and the Pyeongyang naengmyeon broth was too sweet.)

Let’s start with the different noodle possibilities:

  1. Pyeongyang-style naengmyeon, pale-gray buckwheat noodles
  2. Hamhung-style naengmyeon, yellow sweet potato starch noodles
  3. Chik-naengmyeon, black arrowroot noodles
  4. Makguksu, describes buckwheat noodles from Gangwon Province, but often used to refer to thin white wheat noodles
  5. Kalguksu, chewy, knife-cut noodles made of wheat
  6. Dakmyeon, sweet potato glass noodles
  7. Jjolmyeon, super-chewy, thicker wheat noodles (see photo above)
  8. Somen, thin, tender rice noodles
  9. Memil, thin, wholesome-tasting buckwheat noodles, similar to Japanese soba

(I know there are more — what am I missing?)

These noodles are used in some classic preparations, like mul-naengmyeon, in cold broth, bibim-naengmyeon, in a spicy-tart sauce, or japchae, noodles stir-fried with beef and vegetables.

I’ve been eating a lot of kongguksu, wheat noodles served in a cold, vegetarian soymilk broth, the most refreshing carb-plus-bean protein dish ever.

What I really love, though, is that almost all of the above noodles can be cooked, rinsed under cold running water, and then made into bibim-guksu or “mixed noodles.”  And like bibimbap, which is “mixed rice,” what you want to mix with your starch is completely up to you.  Summer produce is particularly inspiring.

Here’s my running start at

good ingredients to put into bibim-guksu

some of which are Korean and some of which are not:

  1. Shredded green cabbage, particularly awesome in jjolmyeon
  2. Shredded red cabbage, just as sweet as green and more psychedelic in color;
  3. Julienned cucumbers;
  4. Julienned carrots;
  5. Julienned zucchini;
  6. Blanched soybean sprouts;
  7. Blanched mung bean sprouts;
  8. Any sort of baby salad green: arugula, frisee, mizuna, tatsoi, mustard, spinach,…;
  9. Any sort of green sprouts: radish, pea;
  10. Perilla leaves, also known as wild sesame leaves, thinly sliced;
  11. Roasted seaweed, cut into thin strips;
  12. Yeolmu kimchi, made with the green tops of baby radishes;
  13. Chonggak kimchi, made with baby radishes;
  14. Any kind of kimchi;
  15. Muhchae, julienned Korean radish, lightly pickled in vinegar;
  16. Asian pear, thinly sliced;
  17. Fuji apple, thinly sliced;
  18. Boiled beef, thinly sliced and served cold;
  19. Smoked fish, like salmon, trout, or mackerel;
  20. Canned tuna?  Why not?;
  21. Sashimi?  Like a noodle version of hoe dup bap!;
  22. Cubes of tofu, plain, marinated, or smoked;
  23. Hard-boiled eggs.

And of course, some sort of chojang-style sauce to top it all off:

  • ¼ cup gochujang
  • 3 tablespoons vinegar, such as rice, brown rice, or cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon sugar, plus more to taste
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon roasted sesame seeds
  • Enough water to thin it out to the desired consistency

So if you have at least 9 kinds of noodles, 23 possible mix-ins, of which you can use any number from 1 to 23 at any one time (though I would aim for 4, personally), how many different permutations is that?  At least 101, right?

If you have any additional noodle or ingredient suggestions, let me know!

The best gochujang

July 14, 2010

Diane and I recently started farming out recipes to friends and family, so that we could see if what made sense to us made sense to them.  One of the most surprising (and “duh!”) moments for me was realizing how difficult it is to shop for Korean ingredients when you don’t read Korean.  Living in New York City, they were able to find their way to HMart or Flushing easily enough.  The problem was when they got there and faced a wall of ingredients with very little English on them.

Classic example of a perplexing ingredient: gochujang or 고추장, frequently translated as “hot pepper paste” or “red pepper paste.”

What is Gochujang?

This is a staple of the Korean pantry, right up there with soy sauce and doenjang, or Korean fermented soybean paste.  The paste, which usually has the consistency of a thick jam, is both spicy and sweet.  It goes into ssamjang, i.e., sauce for barbecued beef and lettuce wraps; it goes into soups; it goes into stir-fries; it coats the rice and noodles in bibimbap and bibimnaengmyeon.  Koreans cannot live without gochujang.  In fact, when my mother travels outside of Korea, she carries a little tube of it in her purse.

Traditionally, every family made its own gochujang, along with its own doenjang and ganjang, or soy sauce.  Gochujang is made from fermented soybeans, similar to what’s found in doenjang, which gives both condiments that inimitable, addictive, umami flavor.  (The doenjang process is long and stinky, a post in itself.)  The fermented soybeans are combined with red chile peppers and a grain, either rice, sweet rice, or barley.  The whole paste is then put in a clay pot and aged in the sun for about a month.  You have to know your seasons and your weather — if you hit a rainy patch, it won’t work.  If you’re out of town and you can’t carefully cover and uncover for optimal sun exposure, it won’t work.  A woman I met told me that growing up in Florida, her mother was careful to rotate the pots from the sunny front of the house to the back.  You have to tend the gochujang as tenderly as you would age a cheese or a prosciutto.  Which makes it even more amazing that it’s something every family, every Korean mother, knew how to do.

That’s no longer true.  Most Koreans now live in high-rise apartments, which doesn’t really foster clay-pot fermentation.  When my sister and I lived at home, my mom made her own gochujang, but now that we’re gone, even she’s given up on making her own.

My mother now has mysterious sources “in the country” from which the gochujang comes back so strong it kicks like a mule.  Even outside Korea, in places like New Jersey, I hear rumors there are grandmothers making a little extra money selling homemade gochujang.  But for those without sources, the only option left is the Korean grocery store.

Which brings me to the main point of this post: what is the best commercially made gochujang?

And equally importantly, how can you identify it?

Identifying Gochujang

First, in this post, I am talking about gochujang, and not ssamjang or chojang, both of which are sauces made in part with gochujang.  The packaging is normally red, and if there is no English on the front label, the white import label on the back should say in English “hot pepper paste” or “red pepper paste.”

Second, learn to read Korean.  Just kidding.  (It is really easy, though.)  What I do mean to say, though, is try to learn what the major brands and labels look like, even if they only use Korean letters.  Wang is always written in the Roman alphabet as “Wang.” Chung Jung Won’s logo is a small multi-colored abstract landscape in a white square:

While Haechandle is a red rectangle with the name of the company and a jaunty slash.

The Taste-Test

Diane and I decided to test six types of gochujang, all bought in standard Korean grocery stores in New York.  We sat down with all six tubs and a plate of cucumber sticks to dip in them.

I cannot say that we tested them blind, or that we were careful to thoroughly cleanse our palate after each one.  Nor can we claim special expertise in gochujang flavor.  There is no science to our methods.

But we do have our impressions and some useful explanations, I think, of what some of these tubs of paste proclaim.  We had a hard time saying, “This is definitely the best!” but we did agree on which ones we liked better and which ones we liked least.

They ranged in price from $4.99 to $7.99, with some containers larger than others.  We didn’t factor the price heavily into the taste test because the paste lasts forever, and a couple extra bucks for a better-tasting gochujang is money very well spent.

So here they are, more or less in order of least liked to most liked:

6.  Brand: 쳥정원 (Chung Jung Won) O’Food, Organic

Special Claims: 순창 (Sunchang), meaning from the city of Sunchang, which is famous for its gochujang. Organic.

Despite the romantic lighting and the allure of “organic,” this was emphatically our least favorite.  It was pastier and grittier than the other ones, and it tasted primarily salty, neither sweet nor hot.

5.  Brand: Wang

Special Claims: 찹쌀고추장 (chapssal-gochujang), meaning made with sweet rice.  It normally has a deeper, sweeter flavor, and was more expensive for having been made with expensive sweet rice.  Now, it’s a signifier for extra special and delicious.

한국산 (hanguksan), meaning made in Korea, which is very important to Koreans for reasons that include nationalism, a belief in terroir or the flavor that comes from place, and fear of low-quality Chinese food, i.e., plastic.

This one was very smooth, but it was a little too sugary and sweet, to the point of being almost mild.  Maybe “boring” is more accurate.  We were not surprised to find out afterward that this one contained MSG.

4.  Brand: Wang

Special Claims: 태양초 (taeyangcho), meaning the peppers were sun-dried, which makes for better flavor but is also more expensive.  Also 찰고추장 (chalgochujang), which is the same thing as chapssal-gochujang.  Made in Korea.

The sun-dried option from Wang didn’t impress us any more than the none sun-dried one.  It was also on the sweet side and although it was smooth, it also tasted a bit flat.  It was spicy yet without real heat, and again, we were not surprised to find out it contained MSG.

The last three, Diane and I disagreed about which ones we liked best, but we agreed they were all quite nice.

3. for Grace, 1. for Diane  Brand: 해찬들 (Haechandle)

Special Claims: “All Korean Hot Pepper.” The back label is even more emphatic, breaking down the different ingredients and proclaiming each to be from Korea.

This one was really spicy, with a graininess that felt homey rather than off-putting.  Diane felt the flavor of hot peppers really came through and we both agreed there was a cleanness that was very appealing.  For me, though, that cleanness meant it lacked depth.  Still, a very good, proper gochujang.

2. for both of us.  Brand: Haechandle

Special Claims: 청양초 (cheongyangcho) refers to the use of a particular, very hot pepper similar to jalapeno.  In case you were wondering, this pepper makes the paste 재대로 매운 or “Appropriately Hot.”

We both wondered if we were unduly influenced by the vibrant picture of the ripening chile pepper on the label, but we liked the fresh spiciness of this one very much.  It was a bit sweeter and saltier, as well as hotter, than the other Haechandle gochujang we tried.

1. for Grace, 3. for Diane.  Brand: 청정원 (Chung Jung Won)

Special Claims: THE WORKS. Made in the city of Sunchang, sun-dried, made with sweet rice, which you must not forget is “our rice,” a.k.a. one hundred percent Korean, baby!

I liked this very much.  I thought the flavor was lovely, dark and deep (though I have no promises to keep, heh).  It was also less sweet, which I prefer, because I can then add sugar to taste.  Diane agreed it was not too sweet and quite good.  I may have been unduly influenced by the prominent promise that it was made in Sunchang.  Diane and I stopped there on our last trip to Korea, and it was so exciting, I am going to have to write a separate post about it.

So what does all this add up to?

Your local Korean grocery store may not have these exact types and brands.  We had two from Wang, two from Haechandle, and two from Chung Jung Won.  Each brand makes more types, and there are at least one or two other major brands out there as well.  We can’t say we tested the most “typical” ones as the selection can really vary from store to store.  These are some that are available online.

But we do think there are some lessons to take away from this somewhat unprofessional taste-test.

  1. Haechandle and Chung Jung Won are good, decent brands.
  2. The words Sunchang (the city), taeyangcho (sun-dried), and chalgochujang (sweet rice gochujang) imply quality, but they don’t guarantee it.
  3. To some extent, “the best gochujang” is a matter of personal preference.  For me, less sweet is very important.  For you, the sweetness might be a plus.
  4. Yet in the end, no gochujang will fail you.  The quality of the gochujang can turn a stew from a good stew to a great one.  But none of these would have made a bad stew.  They were all pungent, salty, spicy, and sweet, adjectives that all add up to tasty in my book.
  5. So don’t be paralyzed by the choices!  Take a chance, take one home, and try it.

And if you ever do get a chance to taste some homemade gochujang, go for it.  It may not be exactly what you like best, but there will be a character to it that you will never find in one of these plastic tubs.

All-American Cobbler

July 5, 2010

Hope you all had a good Fourth of July!  The Americans, at least.

I made a peach-blueberry cobbler, which was beautiful and delicious if I say so myself.  I added blueberries to this recipe and increased the topping by 50%.

We ate it on the roof of my sister’s place.  We were too far east for a great view, but it was still nice.  I love fireworks.

Easier than you might think

May 28, 2010

A few weeks ago, I made kalguksu or knife-cut noodles from scratch.  Surprisingly not hard!  I do have a revisionist memory, though.  I’m blocking out the memory of the first batch of noodles completely sticking together and having to roll them out and slice them again an hour before my guests were to arrive.  Still, if you’re making noodles for just 3 or 4 people, I think it’s worth doing at home as it’s so much tastier than the packaged versions in grocery stores, with that thick unevenness I really miss from my favorite kalguksu restaurant in Seoul.  I’m hopeful to have it finessed for the cookbook.

Also, I’m getting better at killing crabs.  There’s no way to get around it if you want to make gaejang and gae-muchim, what I like to call Korean crab ceviche.  (Though really, it’s just raw crabs chopped up and marinated in soy sauce and/or spicy red pepper paste.)  The first time was awful.  But when you pull the shell off your sixth crab in a row, you get numb to the killing.  Especially when the payoff is so high.