Meet the spice girls of South Korea

At the Sunchang Traditional Paste Museum
At the Sunchang Traditional Paste Museum

There’s a tang in the air. It’s a sweet-yet-savory fragrance that lingers lightly on the breeze as we stand in a courtyard filled with rows of large, covered clay jars. I inhale deeply; the scent reminds me of soy sauce.

“It smells like gochujang,” my friend Seungmock Oh tells me.

One can’t talk about Korean food without talking about gochujang, a fermented red-pepper paste that adds both sweetness and spiciness to any dish, and has a history in Korea that goes back thousands of years.

Sunchang’s main street
Sunchang’s main street

Many Korean gastronomic favorites, from bibimbap to tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes), to a variety of taste bud-stimulating soups and stews like kimchi jjigae, feature gochujang as a compulsory ingredient. In 2015, a survey found that gochujang was the 14th most frequently consumed food in Korea.

The popularity of this pleasingly versatile staple has begun to extend beyond Korea’s borders. International publications have extolled the virtues of the paste — the lifestyle website Quartzy proclaimed it a “spicy, sweet umami bomb that makes everything better” — and declared it a must-have in every household fridge.

A hanok or traditional house 2 Tiny Sunchang village
A hanok or traditional house 2 Tiny Sunchang village

If it’s quality gochujang you’re after, the county of Sunchang — three-and-a-half hours by bus from Seoul in the southwest of the Korean peninsula — has it in abundance. Sunchang’s gochujang has been acknowledged as the best in Korea for hundreds of years. As oral traditions have it, Taejo, the first king of the Joseon dynasty, was such a fan of the gochujang he tasted in Sunchang that he ordered it to be sent to the royal palace as an offering. That’s some serious cred.

Capitalizing on this reputation, the Sunchang Gochujang Village was developed in the late 1990s, bringing together artisans from the region to live and work in a concentrated, pepper-paste-obsessed zone. It’s not just a haven for foodies, but also a site for education and culture — there’s a gochujang museum just opposite, and the village plays host to festivals to promote not only its wares, but also knowledge of the paste-making craft.

Park Hyun-soon
Park Hyun-soon

“The advantage is that the tourists can buy gochujang in one spot,” explains Park Hyun-soon, an expert in making the paste. “If the gochujang artisans are spread out, it will be inconvenient for them. Each artisan would be some kilometers away, or even hundreds of kilometers away.”

The village has one main street, lined with hanoks (traditional Korean houses) and shopfronts on either side. Posters and banners proudly advertise the artisans’ wares, accompanied by photos of their various media appearances. A mountain rises, lush and green, above the tiny neighborhood.

A gochujang-making demonstration
A gochujang-making demonstration

On the day we visit, the sun is glorious and the air is clear, giving the place a completely different vibe to that of bustling Seoul. It’s easy to believe the artisans’ claim that Sunchang’s climate — with its temperature range, humid air and high quality of water — makes it the most suitable place not only to grow the ingredients that go into gochujang, but to ferment it as well. Gochujang-making is a tradition that’s seeped into Hyun-soon’s bones, and the same can be said of most of her neighbors. “In this region, all the mothers make gochujang,” she says.

The artistry of gochujang emanates from the hands of Sunchang’s women, passed down from generation to generation; a point of both familial and cultural pride. Hyun-soon had observed her own mother making the paste as she grew up. After she was married, she inherited techniques and recipes from her mother-in-law, as is customary, and began making her own paste. That was 37 years ago.

Different kinds of fermented pepper
Different kinds of fermented pepper

Kang Sun-ok, another village resident, is also a proud Sunchang native and artisan of 25 years. She’s a government-certified “Grand Master” of gochujang, which means the flavor of her pepper paste and the viability of her business have been officially evaluated and verified. She says it only takes about 30 minutes to an hour to mix all the ingredients — barley malt, red-pepper powder, meju (dried, fermented soybeans), salt and glutinous rice — that go into gochujang. But that’s the easy part.

The mixing of ingredients is only the tip of the iceberg in a long, painstaking process of patience and dedication. It takes a year to get all the ingredients together in the first place: barley malt is prepared in the spring, red peppers are dried out in the summer, soybeans ferment in the fall and everything gets mixed in the winter and left to ferment for anything from six months to a year.

Gochujang in jars may be left to ferment for years
Gochujang in jars may be left to ferment for years

Hyun-soon turns to the jars in her courtyard, tapping them lightly to find those that are filled. She lifts the lid on one, pulling away a plastic sheet to reveal the deep-red paste within. “This one has been fermenting for three years,” she says.

The longer gochujang ferments, the darker its color. “Korean foods are eaten with the eyes as well. The foods with gochujang should look red, vivid and delicious,” Hyun-soon says as she shows us a one-year-old gochujang, using a wooden ladle to scoop up the bright-red paste.

Kang Sun-ok
Kang Sun-ok

Hyun-soon uncovers another clay jar on the porch; the gochujang inside is so dark it’s almost black. This jar has been fermenting for a whopping 18 years. A pepper paste this old is generally taken for its medicinal value — gochujang is considered good for the digestive system, and research has shown that it can prevent obesity and diabetes.

The secret to gochujang, Sun-ok and Hyun-soon say, lies in the meju. Made with soybeans and glutinous rice, cubes or balls of meju are strung up with rice stalks to air-dry. It’s a delicate exercise: everything, from the ratio of soybeans and rice to how well it’s fermented and dried, affects the ultimate taste.

Meju, cubes of dried fermented soybeans
Meju, cubes of dried fermented soybeans

When asked about how she makes meju, Hyun-soon smiles but remains tight-lipped. She waves her hand in the air, indicating all the households in the village. “Each family has their own know-how,” she says. It’s why one artisan’s gochujang tastes different from another, and family recipes are closely guarded secrets.

Gochujang can now be mass-produced, manufactured in factories and packed into containers to be shipped out to supermarkets all over the world. It’s the same fate that’s befallen many traditional crafts, but the inhabitants of Sunchang Gochujang Village don’t seem too concerned — they’re confident that the art of gochujang will endure.

Visitors on a taste test
Visitors on a taste test

Sun-ok’s face splits into a bright grin when I ask what she loves most about being a gochujang artisan. Her favorite moments, she says, are when she conducts classes, which she does for groups of 30 people or more in her spacious store. She’s seen both younger Koreans and visitors from afar show interest in making gochujang the old-school way. “I wanted to become a teacher, but couldn’t, as I didn’t have much education,” she tells me. “When I show others how to make gochujang, I feel like I’m being a teacher. That is the most rewarding thing.”

Glorious red-pepper paste flavors many Korean dishes
Glorious red-pepper paste flavors many Korean dishes

Meanwhile, Hyun-soon now passes on her knowledge to her son and daughter-in-law, and remains optimistic for the future of her craft. “I believe that the tradition of gochujang will be continued as long as people use gochujang for cooking,” she says. “As long as there are people, the tradition will not disappear.”

This article first appeared in the December 2018 issue of Smile magazine.

Written by

Kirsten Han

Photographed by

Dylan Goldby

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