How the Korean chili paste became so popular in the U.S.

How the Korean chili paste became so popular in the U.S.


“I know what it’s implying, but I’ve always hated that kind of implication. Gochujang isn’t the ‘next’ anything to me, you know?” said Eric Kim, a food writer for The New York Times. “It is and has always been gochujang. I never like to say a pantry ingredient is ‘trending’ or ‘mainstream,’ because that implies it is new. But new to whom? Gochujang is one of the oldest foodstuffs, beloved by millions of people for centuries.”

Other food experts found the term misleading, indicating that the paste was never meant to succeed the “mainstream” Sriracha.

“I think whoever came up with it didn’t understand gochujang,” Hooni Kim said, citing the matriarchal pattern of Korean cooking, which involved recipes’ passing down from wives and mothers-in-law. “Because if you ask any Korean mother, they’ll tell you right away gochujang is not a condiment. It’s not ketchup or mayonnaise. It’s one of the key Korean flavor profiles that you cook many dishes with. It’s an ingredient that needs skill and a purpose to cook with.”

Ku said Shake Shack was just one of the latest white-owned conglomerates to piggyback on an ethnic food trend.

In 2012, TGI Friday’s, now owned by Ray Blanchette, advertised a “Korean Steak Taco” following the huge success of Roy Choi’s Kogi BBQ, which included ingredients like gochujang in its spicy pork tacos and prompted the Korean taco truck phenomenon.

“There was nothing Korean about it,” Ku said, referring to the steak taco, which featured corn tortillas, iron steak, ginger-lime slaw, cucumbers, fresh cilantro and Sriracha. “At least Shake Shack uses some uniquely Korean ingredient, gochujang. The fact that it took Shake Shack 10 years after TGI Friday’s failed attempt to market Korean tacos maybe points to them being really behind. I agree with the criticism. It is a lazy interpretation, catch-all term and shortcut marketing fad.”

Despite the media and corporate hype for gochujang, Hooni Kim said the paste is simply “as popular as a Korean restaurant.”

“It’s a very cosmopolitan trend, where particular types of food or ingredient that is considered somewhat foreign or exotic has picked up some notice,” Ku said.

Some say the chili paste going mainstream is a good thing

Park says Shake Shack’s attempt shouldn’t be expected to be authentic and is part of a process. “While most will have the opinion that the taste is far from the original Korean yangnyeom chicken or gangjeong chicken, which boasts a similar gochujang-based sweet sauce, I think [Shake Shack’s attempt] is a commendable try. These kinds of attempts continue the cycle of inspiration and evolution of popular foods which are not rooted in national tradition.”

Hooni Kim, who withstood a period when Americans were ignorant of Korea as an independent nation — often confusing it with China and Japan — said he appreciated any representation of Korea as a country with its own food.

“It all comes down to execution. If they make it delicious so people like Korean fried chicken or gochujang, then I thank them,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ku, who considers the Shake Shack burger to be American, said that while white privilege regards whiteness or associations with European as “native,” all food in America is ethnic.

“In some sense, there’s a superficiality to Shake Shack suddenly saying we’re going to have a Korean-style menu,” Ku said. “But maybe that’s a good indication of a larger trend of America becoming more accepting to differences, which is a continual struggle. If gochujang can have some mainstream appeal in America, then America is truly a pluralistic, multicultural amazing cosmopolitan place.”

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