02 February 2017

Gochujang Made Me Do It

It was a trip to get three things. Three. A loaves and fishes minor miracle that I walked out of the store with as few as I did. Yet...three things. Curiosity, hunger, and some free time conspired against discipline, hence the haul you see above.

The original plan, as scribbled on a torn scrap of notepaper, outline the procurement of soy sauce, water chestnuts, and gochujang. For those who are not familiar with gochujang (and I was not until sometime last summer) it is a spicy, pungent condiment originating in Korea. Traditional ingredients are red chili peppers, rice or wheat, fermented soybeans, and salt. I had eaten it before last year but did not know it as an ingredient.

Food and cooking are never far from my mind. Reading and researching as much as I do had brought the gochujang into my awareness. Not surprising considering how much I was hearing about it. It took on the character as an "It" ingredient in cuisines outside of Korean. While it may be unavoidable that it ran the risk of being the latest trend it fired my imagination immediately. When that occurs, there really is no choice but to track it down for research purposes. Tasty, tasty research.

There are a number of Asian markets in the area where I live. One of those markets happened to be within easy striking distance of my mid-week errand running. My mind and my belly rejoiced at the coincidence, so with small shopping list in hand, it was off to the store.

Confession: no matter the culinary traditions of a particular market, I tend to regard them like kids regard candy stores. The stuff! The things! The food! This one was no different. Well, no different in my reaction to it. Different certainly in the scope and type of offerings as compared to the average "American" market. Any pretense to a plan abruptly evaporated in the face of the goodness I came upon.

Mind you, a lot of it was not immediately apparent to me in terms of the "CONDIMENT" or "BAKING" aisle of the stores I typically frequent. There were plenty of signs in English, but more predominantly in Chinese, Korean, and possibly Japanese. The shelves themselves had little tags listing the products in English, but what most fascinated and amused me was that many of the products were faced so that the labels read in the language of their origin. This is just the sort of thing I enjoy when I am doing research. It invites engagement and attention to detail.

That engagement really came into play as I wandered up and down the aisles. Every Asian cuisine known to me was represented in the astonishing array of products. China. Korea. Japan. Thailand. India. Pickled radish. Dried seafood. Kimchi and not just of the cabbage variety. Preserved mangoes. Millet, sorghum, and black rice. Potato flour and dried noodles of all types. I wondered if the hand basket I carried was adequate to my ambitions. A pallet loader would have been a better choice!

Discipline began to crack. The basket grew heavier. My ambition swelled, damn near drowning out the small voice crying out to "Stick to the plan!" Eventually, I came to and the bubble popped as I realized that I had everything except the gochujang. I was standing in an aisle that was one long wall of soy sauces and bean pastes. Scanning the shelves I could not locate the elusive condiment. This is where my near non-existent knowledge of written Chinese, Japanese, and Korean truly hampered me. Where was it, this gochujang?

That is when it dawned on me. I realized I was looking at a wall of Chinese condiments. I had made the naive mistake of assuming that fermented bean paste is fermented bean paste, so naturally it would be on the "bean paste" aisle. However, what I wanted was Korean. Embarrassment crept over me as I sheepishly slunk over to the Korean section. Down to the end by which I had passed without registering the wall of gochujang there. 

A whole wall. Of gochujang. Right there. Deep red goodness in small jars to little buckets to big pails. I quickly placed a jar in my basket thereby completing my collection. A fine collection, indeed. I hoofed it up to the counter before I could be tempted by anything else. As I waited to pay I knew I would be back soon. But next time, I'll remember that geography, culture, and language are crucial to understanding what my far-away neighbors like to eat...and what I hope to have the privilege to share with them.

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