Sometimes a spicy dish can just about bring tears to the eyes. And not because of Scovilles. “I got to taste some 100-year-old gochujang and it was absolutely mind-blowing,” said Top Chef runner-up Angelo Sosa, about the fermented red pepper paste, with a near crack of the voice. When chefs get a chance to sample the good stuff, things can get a little emotional.
Sosa had just returned from a 10-day eating tour of South Korea and wanted to share the details. As chef-owner of New York City Asian comfort food restaurant Social Eatz, Sosa—raised by an Italian mother and Dominican father—has mastered the art of banh mi but this was his first trip to the land of banchan and bulgogi, supported by the Korean Food Foundation and serving as a reward for winning Eater’s Greatest Burger In America competition with his Bibimbap Burger. If it isn’t obvious, Korean cuisine is blowing up these days. Are you taking notes?
Sosa’s first stop was to observe the art of kimchi production, the spicy, funky, national dish of Korea. “It was like the Bordeaux region for cabbage,” he said of the mineral-packed produce he pulled from the clay soil at a patch in Hanam, located on Seoul’s eastern edge. Each cabbage weighed over five pounds and had the texture of a crisp apple.
In the yard of a 300-year-old house, an old lady showed him how it’s done. The cabbage had been brined for 10 hours in salt and water, rinsed and patted dry. She then peeled back and brushed each layer with a sauce of baby shrimp, fish sauce, fish stock, daikon radish, scallions and red peppers. The fermentation process, which follows, lasts around a week.
“Some Americans just don’t take to the stuff,” he said, implying that they are really missing out.
Sosa next visited Seoil Farm, a scenic farm and factory located in Anseong—two hours south of the capital. It is here he experienced the century-aged gochujang—a fermented pepper paste stored in earthenware called onggi. “I was the first foreigner to be let in,” he says of the secure area where he was allowed to sample the secret sauce. There, a worker lifted the heavy clay lid and burrowed through three inches of a tar-like substance to ladle out a pinkie-sized sample of the Ferrari-red mixture reserved exclusively for medicinal purposes.
“They say it has cured cancers,” said Sosa of the prized elixir, without a hint of suspicion.
Back in the States, Sosa is coming down from the experience. But only barely. “I want to book my next trip today,” he said even while weighed down by jetlag. And so should you. The year 2012 is going to be a big one for Korean cuisine. And now that we’ve got you thinking all about kimchi, do yourself a favor and don’t be one of those Americans.