Technology Changes, But Human Desires Don't

Technology Changes, But Human Desires Don't

It’s that time of year again. The time when my Mom’s two hundred tomato & pepper plants need to be hauled in and out of the house every morning and evening. You build one greenhouse in your backyard a few years ago and BAM! Suddenly, your cupboards are filled with heirloom seeds and grandma’s old canning recipes emerge from a time capsule buried in a dusty corner of the bookshelf.

But I’m not complaining. Come August we’ll be turning our fresh Cherokee Purple tomatoes into sauce & tossing a couple Thai Dragon peppers on our homemade pizzas. Even better, we’ll have plenty leftover for preserving. Any canners out there?

Aside from personal enjoyment and being able to control the ingredients, the best perk that comes from growing and canning our own food happens during the colder months. On days when the bills are tight and the weather is as horrid as today’s prices, but you have a ravenous craving for a spicy pick-me-up that absolutely must be rectified. That’s when a quick trip down the basement steps to Shaw Mart – where there aren’t price tags or a need for ingredient labels – becomes invaluable.

I know. Modern refrigeration and a global supply chain satisfy the same spicy desires many of us living in frigid lands have. And that’s really my point.

Technology changes, but human desires don’t. No matter where you are in the world. 

In Korea, where winters become a garden killing -2.5oC, there’s the same desire for spicy and flavorful foods year-round. But back before the days of refrigeration or glass jars, they needed to devise other ways to preserve out-of-season crops. Especially for those which were to become an integral part of their country’s cuisine. The crop in question?

Koreans call it gochugaru. You know them better as chile peppers.

In Korean, “gochu” means chile pepper while “garu” means powder. Combine the two and what do you get? Their preservation method, of course. First they sun-dry their harvest then grind it into coarse flakes or a fine powder before storing it in clay pots. And that’s it. No refrigerant, no heat pumps, and no finnicky metal lids that refuse to pop. Sometimes a preservation method doesn’t have to be anymore complicated than that.

Anytime Koreans wanted to spice up their cooking, all they had to do was venture over to their personal mart of clay pots for a pinch of Korean chile flakes. But back then, preservation wasn’t really the problem. People have found ways to preserve all sorts of food in all sorts of ways for thousands of years. Back then, the real problem was supply chains. Why?

Because chile peppers aren’t native to Korea.

When did chile peppers arrive in Korea?

That’s right. The country known for its own unique version of chile peppers, can’t grow them. Not originally anyways. For thousands of years, nowhere could the slender and spicy rascals be found on the Korean peninsula, not until someone during Korea’s Joseon Dynasty (1392 – 1897) introduced them.

But by who and how? History records are a little shoddy in that regard, but there are three reigning theories.

Chile peppers were introduced:

  1. by trade with China where the spicy peppers had been consumed for centuries,
  2. by Portuguese traders during the Age of Exploration in the late 16th century, or
  3. by soldiers during the military conquests of neighboring powers like Japan, again in the late 16th

The first two theories need little justification. Merchants from faraway lands came with foreign goods unique to their part of the world, hoping to exchange them for goods unique to the land they’re visiting. Such adventurers helped connect the world with every mutual exchange.

Invading empires, on the other hand, had no intention of trading but of taking everything. Yet, those who came to conquer and expand their empires, may have lost more than their honor in the process if they left a pepper behind.

A pepper seed to be more specific.

Once Koreans drove an invading empire out of their land, all it would take is one hardy seed to start the pepper growing process. Several seasons later, you would have yourself a robust supply. Before long, you would have your own local chile pepper empire.

Which brings us to our next point.


During the days of the Silk Road, when the origins of certain spices weren’t readily known or discoverable with a few clicks of the supercomputer you currently have in your pocket, it was common practice to tell tall tales about where a spice or product came from or how it was produced. Sometimes this was done to create mystique and increase a product’s perceived value. Other times it was to mislead.

In the case of chile peppers, traders are said to have told Korean farmers to burn the seeds prior to planting them. Advice that’s as useful as an IKEA manual. Yet, with no access to information about how to cultivate a foreign seed, likely with a funny name, you’re left with two options: either follow said advice or reason your way to conclusions yourself. Which happen to be the same choices you have when building the mysteriously named MÖRBYLÅNGA.

It's a table folks. No manual needed!

Which is why such a silly tale was destined to fail, sooner rather than later, and any attempts to maintain control over their pepper monopoly were hopeless. Even if farmers were fooled from the start, at what point do they get suspicious that burning seeds, when you don’t burn others, is the wrong way to go. At what point do you get suspicious that maybe the people whose livelihoods are dependent on your pepper patronage, might not be telling the truth?

People catch on eventually. Lies can only be propped up for so long.

Regardless of how chili peppers found their way to Korea or the tricks that may have been played, the important point is that they arrived and Koreans figured out how to cultivate them.

Soon after their introduction, Korean farmers and gardeners began selecting and cultivating chili peppers more suited to their climate, soil conditions, and culinary preferences. Over time, they produced pepper flakes different from the small jar you typically find in pizza shops and pasta restaurants across North America. For starters, red chile flakes are much, much hotter than your average gochugaru. But what the Korean version lacks in heat, it makes up for in complexity.

Smoky, fruity, slightly sweet, it’s these characteristics that make gochugaru different from their North American cousins and what makes them and Korean cuisine unique.

Kimchi. Gochujang. Bibimbap. Each dish is worth experiencing, but unless you’re of Korean descent or a chef, I’d recommend you follow the manual.

How do I use Gochugaru?

Since it’s arrival & cultivation, gochugaru has become a staple ingredient in Korean households, both as an all-purpose seasoning and for creating signature dishes like their famous kimchi.


So what kinds of foods & dishes can you use gochugaru on?

The simple answer is anytime you want to add a little heat with smoky and fruity undertones. Pizza, pasta, soups, stews, marinades. You can pretty much use gochugaru as a substitute for any recipe that uses red chile flakes. But if you’re looking for specific dishes designed with the flavor profile of gochugaru in mind, then there’s no other place to explore than Korean cuisine.

Kimchi is the most famous Korean dish. Traditionally, it is fermented cabbage or Korean radishes seasoned with a paste containing gochugaru, garlic, ginger, fish sauce, and other ingredients.

Gochujang is a spicy fermented chili paste, made with gochugaru, that is widely used in Korean cooking. It is used as a condiment, marinade, and seasoning in various dishes like Gochujang Chicken.

Tteokbokki is a popular Korean street food made with cylindrical rice cakes stir-fried in a spicy sauce, often made with gochujang, soy sauce, and sugar.

Bibimbap is a popular Korean rice dish topped with various sautéed and seasoned vegetables, meat, a fried egg, and gochujang sauce. Gochugaru is sometimes sprinkled over bibimbap for a spicy, smoky kick.

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