Try Out Korean Cooking With These 3 Essential Ingredients

Get to know these 3 essential ingredients

Korean food in America has, until recently, been confined to dedicated Koreatowns bustling with expats seeking a taste of home and Americans hungry for barbecue. But a growing number of inventive modern Korean restaurants like Chicago's Parachute and New York's Oiji and a fresh crop of English-language Korean cookbooks like Koreatown, K-Food and Maangchi's Real Korean Cooking have introduced the intriguing flavors of Korea to a larger audience, drawing diners in at first bite.

For those wanting to try cooking Korean food at home, there are a few essential things to have on hand besides kimchi, short-grain rice and soy sauce. Meet the three jangs. These pastes provide the base flavors for countless Korean dishes, from barbecue to piping hot soups. Walk into any Korean grocery store and look for these small plastic tubs: one tan, another red and the last one green. Here's what you need to know about these powerhouses.

Doenjang (tan): This bean paste packs a punch of salty funk with a touch of nuttiness thrown in. Unlike the Japanese bean paste, miso, the beans in doenjang aren't completely pulverized but rather left partially whole, making the paste a bit chunky. It works its way into the most classic of Korean soups and savory pancakes that get filled with kimchi or seafood, and adds a salty, umami undercurrent to dishes. "It's part of who we are as Koreans and how we see ourselves," Korean food authority Maangchi writes on her website. Pro tip: Even though it's a fermented product, Maangchi recommends looking for the farthest expiration date, meaning the paste was packaged more recently.  

Gochujang (red): Funky, spicy with just a touch of sweetness coming in at the very end, this is the essential Korean hot pepper paste that's made with glutinous rice. Varying levels of heat hide behind the exterior, so keep an eye out for spice-level ratings, which sometimes come in the form of one, two or three chile peppers printed on the package. On its own, gochujang is intense, but it perfectly complements Korean beef marinades and bibimbap. Maangchi recommends splurging a bit on this one to get the best product, and there's even a host of artisanal varieties on the market, like Wholly Gochujang.

Ssamjang (green): If you enjoy Korean barbecue, you've likely scooped up a dollop of this sauce (its name literally means "wrapping sauce") with a piece of fresh off-the-grill meat. The flavor is salty, sweet, spicy and utterly addictive. At its core, it is a blend of doenjang and gochujang mixed with garlic, scallions, honey (or something else sweet like sugar or rice syrup) and sesame seeds. While it is simple to make if you have the first two jangs, it is also great to have on hand, ready to go. Unlike gochujang, ssamjang is great right from the container, nothing added, and is delicious on rice, meat and eggs.