Say hello to my current heartthrob ingredient—gochugaru. Having seen it being used in Korean recipe videos and vlogs to prepare the most vibrant coloured dishes, I recently ordered a packet of gochugaru from a Korean restaurant called Arirang in Bengaluru—and I can’t get enough of it.
For those of you not obsessed with the wonder that is Korean cuisine, gochugaru is Korean red chilli (hot pepper) flakes or powder (gochu = pepper and garu = powder). Since we have many varieties of red chilli powder, you may wonder why I am raving about it—is there any difference at all?
Gochugaru is obtained by sun-drying Korean red chillies after removing the stem end, the veins and the seeds and crushing them to a coarse powder. The colour is a stunning red. The flavour is an unusual combination of earthy, fruity, sweet and mild heat. I love chillies for their flavour and detest them for their heat. The mild variety of gochugaru, with a full-bodied flavour and gentle on the heat is, therefore, a perfect fit for me. The coarser the flakes, the milder the heat because the lesser the net surface area. Chung yang gochugaru is the kind that packs in more heat.
According to Emily Kim, the grand dame of Korean cooking who goes by the name Maangchi everywhere, including her YouTube channel and books, gochugaru comes in mild (deol-maewoon) as well as hot (maewoon) versions. Kimchi gets its colour and flavour from gochugaru, and Maangchi recommends the milder variety since it allows you to use a lot of it for the colour without making the kimchi fiery hot. Gochugaru is also used in soups, stews, salads, noodles and vegetable side dishes.
I read about how the high-end restaurants in Korea use the finer ground gochugaru so that the larger flakes don’t get stuck in the teeth of customers. This is so in line with the Korean aesthetic of perfectionism even in appearances.
It is fascinating to note that chillies, the lifeblood of Korean cuisine, came to that country only in the 16th century. It was the Portuguese tradesmen who introduced them to East Asia as well as India. A paper published in the Journal Of Ethnic Foods and available on ScienceDirect did suggest that Korean peppers (gochu) are biologically different from those in Central America, and that gochu arrived in the Korean peninsula millions of years ago, spread by birds. It concludes that gochu has been grown in Korea for nearly 1,500 years. Research, however, has proven that chillies (Capsicum annuum) originated in Mexico, so what the Koreans refer to as gochu could well be another spicy ingredient that was used to prepare dishes and aid in fermentation.
A mention needs to be made here of gochujang, another popular ingredient in Korean cooking. This red chilli paste uses a finely ground gochugaru along with fermented soybean powder, a glutinous rice paste and salt, each ingredient adding a flavour dimension. The utterly delicious Korean spicy rice cake stew called tteokbokki uses both gochugaru and gochujang to make the broth.
I am sure many of you are wondering if you can cook Korean dishes using Indian chilli powders. If you take the effort to sun-dry Byadagi or Kashmiri chillies, remove stems and seeds and crush to a coarse powder, it may work with respect to the colour. It is tough to replicate the flavour profile though. You will find authentic gochugaru on Amazon. You may also check with the Korean restaurants in your city.
If you want to try your hands at simple Korean cooking at home, in addition to the main dish, try making a small banchan spread. These are small dishes filled with kimchi, salads, bean sprouts, tofu, etc., kept at the centre of the table to be shared by all. Gochugaru makes for a flavoursome seasoning for any of these quick and delicious dishes, like the emergency kimchi and cucumber salad given below. In both, light soy sauce can be substituted with fish sauce.
KIMCHI EMERGENCY (ADAPTED FROM MAANGCHI)
2 cups sliced cabbage
1 tbsp non-iodised salt
For the kimchi paste
2 tbsp gochugaru (mild)
2 tsp sugar
1 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp grated garlic
2 tbsp minced spring onion greens
2 tbsp grated carrot
Half tsp non-iodised salt
Place the sliced cabbage in a large bowl. Cover with water and one tablespoon of salt. Mix well with hands and allow to sit for 10 minutes. Drain the cabbage and wash a couple of times with water. Drain well and keep aside.
Prepare the kimchi paste by mixing the gochugaru, sugar, soy sauce, garlic, spring onion greens, carrot and salt. Work the paste into the drained cabbage. Pack this into a jar or box, pressing it down well so there is not much air trapped within. It can be had immediately as a salad or allowed to ferment for a few days and then refrigerated.
4 European cucumbers*
2 tbsp sliced spring onion greens
For the dressing
1 tbsp gochugaru (mild)
2 tsp light soy sauce
1 tsp vinegar
2 garlic cloves, grated
Quarter tsp salt
Half tsp sugar
For the garnish
1 tsp each black and white sesame seeds
1-2 tsp toasted sesame oil
Cut the cucumbers into thick slices on a bias to get long diagonal slices. Put it in a bowl along with spring onion greens. In a small cup, combine all the dressing ingredients. Transfer over the cucumber and toss well to combine. Remove to a serving bowl and top with sesame seeds and a drizzle of sesame oil.
*If using regular cucumbers, peel, halve lengthwise and slice diagonally.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book, Everyday Superfoods, released on 18 March.