Please Pass the Gochujang
Over the last year I've read a few articles about how Gochujang is the "new" hot sauce.
I am not going to lie. Upon discovering the articles, I felt some pride that the sauce that had humbly graced my family’s dining room table night after night was in some sort of positive spotlight. It was being described beautifully, with food words that I can only assume appeal to those who call themselves connoisseurs or trendsetters of all things food and taste. Yes, I silently agreed while reading one of the writer’s words, gochujang is good for you. You’re right, this spicy sauce is earthy and deep. In fact, its earthy texture and taste remind me of how I felt as a little girl playing in Korea with my cousins after our first-ever meeting. We ran out to a nearby field of dirt, and dug for treasure, filling our fingernails with mud and grime. We didn't speak the same language, but played together easily, bonding over filthy fingers, imagination and sweaty, summer-heated foreheads.
As I write I can imagine my mom now, across the table from me, extending one
of her perfectly-assembled lettuce wraps the size of her fist, waiting for me
to open my mouth so that she can stuff it full.
After the initial cool crunch of lettuce, my mouth would find warm, soft
rice, then a spicy and sweet, sesame-flavored kalbi piece with a burst of of
Gochujang to complete it all. Had I not
noticed how amazing this sauce was all throughout my childhood and beyond?
|this photo was taken in Korea, after an afternoon of playing with my cousins like I|
described above...My mom is the one in red and white strips in the back.
Can you guess which one is me?
This was the sauce that my mom always got in large, rectangular tubs from the Korean store. Or, if she didn’t buy it, she made her own and filled a large, stout glass jar with it. It didn’t come in small bottles covered in fancy, cool fonts which cost double what my mom would pay for something triple the size.
I bought one of those bottles when I spotted it at a local organic grocery store. It resembled a beer bottle with a much shorter and thicker neck. This particular brand even gave back to the community. There’s no question that this Gochujang is doing good things. I used some with my egg-over-rice-lunch and even instagrammed it in my excitement over how delicious it was. And yet, if I am completely honest, something about my lunch and documentation of it made me feel like I was cheating on the depth of my upbringing, and dinner after dinner of my past.
Truly, I am (mostly) glad that there are people who will get to discover and experience things like Gochujang because of cool packaging and the voice of a culinary journalist or a trendy chef, even if they would never come any closer to Korean culture than the taste from a well-designed bottle.
But, sometimes, it annoys me. Sometimes I am sick of the intentionality of marketing and the voice of trends and, even more so, the quick following of them. Sometimes I am tired of everyday things in one culture being propped up as cool or trendy for a year or two among the unfamiliar majority in another.
Gochujang is special to me for different reasons. My Mom used to (and still does) stand at her kitchen counter, snacking on hot peppers (that most of us, including me, would probably faint if we took one bite of), into a bowl of Gochujang. She would eat them raw, not bothering to close her mouth as she devoured them. It’s not customary in traditional Korean culture to close your mouth when you eat. Food is loud and messy and shared. It’s a boisterous family affair. This snack of fire-inducing peppers dipped into Gochujang comforted her and brought her back to where she was from; and the picture in my mind of her snacking this way now comforts me and brings me back to where I am from as her daughter.
For me, Gochujang tells the story of my Mom, the story of our family’s dinner table throughout many years of highs, lows, heartbreak, misunderstanding, love and laughter. It tells the story of my own childhood home, wherever we lived at the time. It tells the story of my own growing and changing understanding of the heritage God has given me.
A year ago, I had a friend ask me to go to a Korean restaurant with her. She hadn’t ever had Korean food and wanted to try it. We ordered Dolsot Bibimbap and sat across the table from each other, talking about how much Gochujang she should add to her hot stone bowl, and how spicy it would be. This friend was willing to try something brand new and listen to me tell her about stories of my upbringing and my history with the foods on the table in front of us. It had nothing to do with being trendy, or being a food expert, and everything to do with a relationship and a priceless willingness on her part, to step outside what was normal and expected and understood. It meant the world to me.
God obviously made food to nourish us. Beyond nourishing, I believe he made it to stretch us, to be a tool of care, and to give our memories scent, taste and color. I believe that the true gift of food lies far beyond taste and personal benefit, and is found in the power it has to connect people.
So, Gochujang, I will love you even if everyone decides you have too much brown sugar to make the health benefits of fermentation worth it. I might buy you in a trendy, over-priced, made for non-Koreans bottle, or I might buy you in the kind of red tub I grew up with. Either way, you will always remind me of my Mother’s love language of food and your scent will take me back to summers in Korea and the everyday dinners of my childhood. Whether you are called the new "it" hot sauce, or not, I will still ask for you and pass you on to my babies in lettuce wraps as big as my fists.