I eat a lot of yummy Korean food at local joints around my home. It’s inexpensive, healthy, delicious, and more often than not, is laden with different kinds of chili peppers that give the food color and personality. Some are super-spicy, and others aren’t spicy at at all, depending on the variety. Bottom line, it’s hard to avoid chili or the ubiquitous spicy-sweet chili sauce (gochujang 고추장) when dining on Korean cuisine. Korean food is known for its spiciness, but it wasn’t always this way, I recently learned.
I’m not sure what got me thinking about chili peppers in Korea, and Asia in general, but not long ago, I found out that chilis aren’t native to Asia. Hard to believe I didn’t know before, but it’s true. It may seem surprising, since so many Asian cuisines use chili peppers (I think of my trips to Bangkok, where street food is amazing and many times I’ve choked my way through a vapor cloud of bird’s eye chili oil as I passed the stalls). As it happens, I learned that chilis come from the Americas, and were introduced into the spice trade by the Portuguese in the 15th century. They apparently thought that since black pepper was such a popular indigenous Asian spice, that chilis would go over well, too.
The Portuguese were onto something, because chili eventually became a central seasoning element in so many Asian cooking traditions. China is now one of the world’s largest producers of chilis. In Korea, chilis are a mainstay of vegetable gardens, and in the countryside, they can often be spotted after the harvesting season, drying in the sun on large mats.
I also learned recently that Korean food used to be quite bland, back in the Goryeo period, long before the country began to open up to foreign influences. I heard about a few restaurants that specialize in this kind of “old-Korea” cooking, which I want to experience. There are still many delicious foods without chili that thrive in the modern cuisine, such as mandu (dumplings), grilled meats, noodles, and the use of black pepper.
That’s it – I just wanted to share that today because it’s been on my mind! I will check in again soon with some more musings and updates on my stitching progress. Meanwhile, one place I can recommend if you’re interested in Korean cooking at home, is Maangchi’s website and YouTube channel. She is absolutely adorable and makes Korean cooking very accessible. See you again soon!