Sriracha is rolling off the tip of America’s tongue.
Since 1980, when the spicy Thai chili sauce was brought to the United States by a Vietnamese immigrant, Sriracha has evolved into a kick-in-the-pants version of ketchup. The sharp, vinegary heat has trickled down to mainstream menus such as P.F. Chang’s China Bistro and Subway.
Los Angeles-based Huy Fong Sriracha is the most popular brand. The distinctive rooster logo has become so recognizable it is emblazoned on everything from T-shirts to cellphone covers, and the sauce has even inspired a documentary film and a satirical jab at the food pyramid.
Such burning success has led tried-and-true Tabasco to launch a version of Sriracha that is aged in white oak barrels for up to three years, now available in select SuperTargets.
But Sriracha isn’t the only star in Asia’s smoldering culinary arsenal.
Enter gochujang. It’s not a household name here yet. But neither was Sriracha.
“Every household in Korea has a jar in their refrigerator. It’s kind of like here, everyone has a bottle of ketchup. That’s how popular it is,” says Korean-born Max Chao, executive chef of Nara: A Japanese Robata, in Kansas City, Mo.
Gochujang (also spelled kochujang) is served with traditional Korean barbecued meats, as well as a mixed rice and vegetable dish often topped with a fried egg, known as bibimbap. Chao also serves it in soups, as a dipping sauce and with seafood.
But an exotic condiment is truly gaining ground when chefs start introducing it as an ingredient in non-Asian dishes. Executive chef Michael Corvino of the American Restaurant in Kansas City routinely uses the brick-red fermented Korean chili paste — a peanut-butterlike mixture of dried red peppers, sweet rice and the fermented soybean paste miso — because he craves gochujang’s “sweet, funky, fermented” flavor.
For a Thanksgiving meal, he mixed gochujang with chopped fresh herbs and salt to create a dry cure he slathered on a turkey before roasting it. The results were a moist, beautifully bronzed bird with a hint of umami, a Japanese word for a well-rounded, savory, meaty taste.
Corvino continues to go through his stash of gochujang at a fast clip. He uses up jars so fast he doesn’t have to figure out how long the paste keeps once opened, although the fermentation is likely to extend its shelf life in the refrigerator to several months.
Chef Jonathan Justus of Justus Drugstore in Smithville, Mo., a devoted farm-to-table practitioner, tossed carrots with olive oil, cilantro and Japanese togarashi, a chile pepper spice blend. Shichimi togarashi is a seven-spice blend with chile pepper and a variety of other ingredients, often including citrus peel, sesame, seaweed and hemp seeds. The mixture may not be in every supermarket yet, but you can find it at Asian markets, as well as some food co-ops.
It is also already on the McCormick radar. The spice company tracks global spices coming into the American home cook’s kitchen. The average pantry today has about 40 spices, compared with fewer than 10 in the 1950s, according to Laurie Harrsen, a McCormick spokeswoman who works on the company’s influential annual Flavor Forecast.
Use of shichimi togarashi, which adds a “spicy, crunchy kick” to vegetables, noodle soups and even French fries, is up 150 percent on restaurant menus since 2010.
Meanwhile, Asian spices are featured in two McCormick product lines: Simply Asia (four spice blends, including a Vietnamese Saigon Seasoning, Japanese Hibachi Seasoning and a Chinese Szechuan Five Spice) and McCormick Gourmet (including Chinese Five Spice and a Sriracha Seasoning launching this spring).
Nara’s sushi chef, Fumi Nagase, is a fan of togarashi’s “gentler” notes, which he is using on a scallop dish at the restaurant. The spice mixture also shows up in a less traditional format at the bar, where the restaurant’s signature Bloody Mary is rimmed with togarashi.
Corvino traces the popularity of these Asian accents to haute cuisine chefs trained in French technique who have been enamored of Japanese cuisine’s clean, simple approach to flavor. Harrsen of McCormick points to popular chefs such as David Chang of Momofuku in New York City, Roy Choi of Kogi Korean taco trucks in Los Angeles and “Iron Chef” Nobu Matsuhisa for ultimately popularizing those “amped up Asian” flavors.
Naomi Imatome-Yun, a Korean food expert who had been writing for the website about.com, was thrilled when a Vermont-based publisher noticed gochujang popping up on restaurant menus and asked her to write “Cooking With Gochujang: Asia’s Original Hot Sauce” (Countryman Press; $16.95), released last fall.
Imatome-Yun has consulted for the Korean government, which for the past decade has been eager to spread knowledge about the country’s authentic cuisine, but she says repackaging and translation will be necessary for gochujang to make the giant leap to Sriracha immortality. She recommends Sempio brand, available at Korean grocery stores. She also recently taste-tested Chung Jung One, a gluten-free product that also has no MSG or corn syrup, available on Amazon.
In a matter of weeks, a Korean company plans to start marketing in supermarkets in Los Angeles and New York City, cities where Korean food is already considered part of the mainstream. The next step is to watch the ingredient move into home cooking. Not surprisingly, Imatome-Yun’s new cookbook features plenty of funky ways to incorporate gochujang into easy-to-swallow American standbys, including a bibimbap burger, L.A.-style chicken quesadillas, a Korean-inspired ketchup and grilled flank steak. Perhaps her favorite is a Smoked Salmon “Pizza,” Two Ways.
“Gochujang has a depth of flavor, so it can flavor anything,” she says. “But in general, it has taken a little longer to take off because it has not been very well marketed.”