Korean food isn’t always spicy—there are plenty of mild, savory dishes without that well-known spicy kick. But spicy flavors are popular, and we have the gochu (고추, chili) to thank for that. Harold McGee tells us there are 25 species of chilies in the world, five of which have been domesticated. Here in Korea, we have Capsicum annuum, the oldest of the domesticated species, with evidence of its cultivation in Mesoamerica dating to at least 5,000 years ago.
So how did an ancient American spice become such a staple in Korean cuisine today? One big step, as with many modern fruits and vegetables, was the Columbian Exchange, which brought chilies to Spain by 1493. Here’s where it gets a little murky. In the most common version of the story, Portuguese traders brought chilies to Japan, who then brought them to the Korean peninsula during the Imjin Wars (1592–98). But other sources point out that Indian and Arab traders had already been in contact with China via the Silk Road. The Ming and Joseon Dynasties had a close trading relationship. In either case, chilies didn’t seem to be a very big part of the Korean diet until after 1600, which means that in just a few hundred years, gochu caught on really quickly. Today, not all Korean food is spicy, but you’ll find chilies in all kinds of popular dishes, from chili flakes in kimchi to a dollop of gochujang in your bibimbap. In fact, chilies are Korea’s most-consumed vegetable when measured by weight (200 to 250,000 metric tons per year).
So why is gochu so popular in Korea? If you, too, have succumbed to the piquant charms of the globe-trotting gochu, then maybe you’re already familiar with its addictive qualities, the surprisingly pleasant burn and sear. This heat comes from a compound called capsaicin, concentrated mainly in the inner membrane and seeds. Capsaicin has been shown to have anti-microbial properties, helping preserve foods (which is why foods in the warmer southern regions of Korea tend to use more chili). Historian Ahn Jeong-yoon suggests that Koreans fell in love with chilies so quickly because they were already accustomed to eating pungent foods like garlic and scallions, but also because eating spicy foods relieves stress—and Koreans have certainly known their share of war and hardship over the centuries. Another reason: Compared to other spices, like those from trees, chilies grow relatively quickly and are easy to cultivate.
In Korea, summer is chili season. You’ll find them in almost every home garden, even on apartment balconies. There are three traditional varietals and a couple of new, popular hybrids, which we’ll get into below, but the life of a chili goes more or less like this: They’re planted in the spring, and green chilies are harvested throughout the summer. In late summer, once they turn red, one varietal in particular is harvested and dried to turn into gochutgaru (고춧가루, chili flakes). And that precious red powder is in turn used to make gochujang. In Korea, we eat chilies green, red, raw, cooked, as a garnish, as a seasoning; we eat the leaves, we pickle the leaves and the fruits; traditionally, at least, we use the red chilies to symbolize boys and ward off evil spirits. Chilies are everywhere, beloved and versatile. Here are the most common varietals you’ll find.
1. Put-gochu (풋고추) / Hong-gochu (홍고추)
“Put,” pronounced “poot,” means young and green. These chilies mature into hong-gochu (“hong” means red). There are different kinds of put- and hong-gochu, but overall they’re known for their versatility and for making gochutgaru. When put-gochu is very young, it’s called yeori-gochu (열이 고추). These are very tender, crunchy and good for making jangajji (장아찌, fermented pickles) and sautées.
flavor profile: As the name suggests, put-gochu have a bright, bell pepper-like greenness. Though they’re slighly less sweet than bell peppers, their dominant notes are sweet and sour. Put-gochu are very crunchy—people enjoy this texture in the summertime when eating barbecue.
how to cook: Use both red and green as a garnish for color. The younger green gochu (put-gochu) is often added to baskets of ssam (쌈, vegetable wraps) for dipping into jang (장, fermented sauces) and eating with your meal. You can also mix the fresh put-gochu with doenjang. Hong-gochu is not typically eaten in these ways. Hong-gochu can be ground fresh and used for making fresh summer kimchi. It’s also dried and then use for gochutgaru.
2. Ggwari-gochu (꽈리 고추)
Known as Shishito peppers in English, these small chilies look withered even when fresh.
flavor profile: Ggwari-gochu are less crunchy, and have a more intense pepper flavor without the spice—think cold smoke without the fire.
how to cook: These are often sautéed whole with dried anchovies or dried shrimp, and they’re really great when grilled whole with a little salt and oil. You can also make gochu-jjim (고추찜): dust your chilies with flour or rice flour, steam them, then season with seasoned soy sauce. You can also dry them after steaming and deep fry—they get really crispy.
3. Cheongyang gochu (청양 고추)
This chili is easily the spiciest of the Korean chilies, coming in between 4,000 and 10,000 Scovilles (for reference, bell peppers are 0, jalapeños are 2,500 to 8,000 Scovilles, and Scotch Bonnets are 100,000 to 350,000 Scovilles). Some people can smell and tell when a pepper is going to be extra spicy—it’s a matter of feeling the heat in your nose. If you can’t take the heat, try removing the seeds and it will help.
flavor profile: As you may have guessed, you’ll get a lot of heat from this one! It’s hard to taste the chili greenness of cheongyang gochu because there’s so much searing heat from the capsaicin.
how to cook: This chili is a versatile seasoning—you can addit to any kind of dish that you want to add heat to. It’s very commonly sliced and added to soup dishes to add some heat without coloring the broth red from gochutgaru (chili flakes). You can also dry cheongyang gochu when they ripen and turn red to make cheongyang gochutgaru (청양 고춧가루). Some people mix this with their normal gochutgaru to create an even spicier blend.
Lately, you can also find a few new kinds of chilies in markets and grocery stores. One of these is oi-gochu (오이 고추, cucumber chili), also known as the asagi-gochu (아사기 고추). It’s hard to describe what exactly this chili is—we called a couple different government offices and both told us that there is no official designation for what a oi-gochu should be. It’s more of a marketing term used by different companies to describe any hybrid they’ve come up with that fits the commonly-accepted flavor profile:
flavor profile: A very sweet, very approachable green chili, as crunchy as a red bell pepper, and almost as juicy and sweet. It’s mainly eaten raw, like as a crudité/salad/with ssam.
Another is the gaji gochu (가지고추), which is a cross between an eggplant and chili—it’s deep purple, almost black, and people also eat this one raw. It’s very similar in flavor and texture to the oi-gochu.