Eat & Drink

Sriracha has moved into the American mainstream: What hot Asian ingredients are next?

Ramen Bowls in Lawrence serves a spicy chicken curry ramen topped with a Sriracha sauce.
Ramen Bowls in Lawrence serves a spicy chicken curry ramen topped with a Sriracha sauce. The Kansas City Star

Sriracha is rolling off the tip of America’s tongue.

Since 1980, when the spicy Thai chili sauce was brought to the United States by a Vietnamese immigrant, Sriracha has evolved into a kick-in-the-pants version of ketchup. The sharp, vinegary heat has trickled down to mainstream menus such as P.F. Chang’s China Bistro and Subway.

Los Angeles-based Huy Fong Sriracha is the most popular brand. The distinctive rooster logo has become so recognizable it is emblazoned on everything from T-shirts to cellphone covers, and the sauce has even inspired a documentary film and a satirical jab at the food pyramid.

Such burning success has led tried-and-true Tabasco to launch a version of Sriracha that is aged in white oak barrels for up to three years. The “premium” version is available starting this month at local SuperTargets.

But Sriracha isn’t the only star in Asia’s smoldering culinary arsenal.

Enter Gochujang. It’s not a household name here yet but …

“Every household in Korea has a jar in their refrigerator. It’s kind of like here, everyone has a bottle of ketchup. That’s how popular it is,” says Korean-born Max Chao, executive chef of Nara: A Japanese Robata.

Gochujang (which is also spelled kochujang) is served with traditional Korean barbecued meats, as well as a mixed rice and vegetable dish often topped with a fried egg, known as bibimbap. Chao also serves it in soups, as a dipping sauce and with seafood.

But an exotic condiment is truly gaining ground when chefs start introducing it as an ingredient in non-Asian dishes. The American Restaurant’s executive chef Michael Corvino routinely uses the brick-red fermented Korean chili paste — a peanut butterlike mixture of dried red peppers, sweet rice and the fermented soybean paste miso — because he craves Gochujang’s “sweet, funky, fermented” flavor.

Two Thanksgivings ago, Corvino introduced Star readers to Gochujang mixed with chopped fresh herbs and salt to create a dry cure he slathered on a Thanksgiving turkey before roasting it. The results were a moist, beautifully bronzed bird with a hint of umami, a Japanese word for a well-rounded, savory, meaty taste.

Corvino continues to go through his stash of Gochujang at a fast clip. In fact, he uses his jars so fast he doesn’t have to figure how long the paste keeps once opened, although the fermentation is likely to extend its shelf life in the refrigerator to several months.

On his upscale tasting menu, Corvino has served octopus cooked with a slow-stewed sofrito of fennel, onion and tomato (more typical of Mediterranean cooking) and finished with a couple of spoonfuls of Gochujang. The octopus is then paired with heirloom Rancho Gordo Corona beans and bits of dried Chinese lap cheong sausage.

“This dish has Asian ingredients,” Corvino says, “but it doesn’t taste like an Asian dish.”

This year another request for a Star Thanksgiving side dish netted a recipe for roasted vegetables from chef Jonathan Justus of Justus Drugstore in Smithville. A devoted farm-to-table practitioner, he tossed carrots with olive oil, cilantro and Japanese togarashi.

Togarashi is a chili pepper spice blend. Shichimi togarashi is a seven-spice blend with chili pepper and a variety of other ingredients, often including citrus peel, sesame, seaweed and hemp seeds. The mixture may not be in every supermarket yet, but you can find it at Asian markets, as well as Whole Foods.

It is also already on the McCormick radar. The spice company tracks global spices coming into the American home cook’s kitchen. The average pantry today has about 40 spices, compared to fewer than 10 in the 1950s, according to Laurie Harrsen, a McCormick spokeswoman who works on the company’s influential annual Flavor Forecast.

Use of shichimi togarashi, which adds a “spicy, crunchy kick” to vegetables, noodle soups and even french fries, is up 150 percent on restaurant menus since 2010.

Meanwhile, Asian spice is featured in two McCormick product lines: Simply Asia (four spice blends, including a Vietnamese Saigon Seasoning, Japanese Hibachi Seasoning and a Chinese Szechwan Five Spice) and McCormick Gourmet (including Chinese Five Spice and a Sriracha Seasoning launching this spring).

Nara’s sushi chef, Fumi Nagase, is a fan of togarashi’s “gentler” notes, which he is using on a scallop dish at the restaurant. The spice mixture also shows up in a less traditional format at the bar, where the restaurant’s signature Bloody Mary is rimmed with togarashi.

Corvino traces the popularity of these Asian accents to haute cuisine chefs trained in French technique who have been enamored of Japanese cuisine’s clean, simple approach to flavor. McCormick’s Harrsen points to popular chefs such as David Chang of Momofuku in New York City, Roy Choi of Kogi Korean taco trucks in Los Angeles and Iron Chef Nobu Matsuhisa for ultimately popularizing those “amped up Asian” flavors.

Naomi Imatome-Yun, a Korean food expert who had been writing for about.com, was thrilled when a Vermont-based publisher noticed Gochujang popping up on restaurant menus and asked her to write “Cooking With Gochujang: Asia’s Original Hot Sauce” (The Countryman Press; $16.95), released in September.

Imatome-Yun has consulted for the Korean government, which for the past decade has been eager to spread knowledge about the country’s authentic cuisine, but she says repackaging and translation will be necessary for Gochujang to make the giant leap to Sriracha immortality. She recommends Sempio brand, available at Korean groceries. She also recently taste-tested Chung Jung One, a gluten-free product that also has no MSG or corn syrup, available on Amazon.

In a matter of weeks, a Korean company has plans to start marketing in supermarkets in Los Angeles and New York City, cities where Korean food is already considered part of the mainstream. “I live in L.A., and modern Korean (fare) is everywhere,” she says. “People here are used to kimchee, so the palate is open to new flavors.”

The next step is to watch the ingredient move into home cooking. Not surprisingly, Imatome-Yun’s new cookbook features plenty of funky ways to incorporate Gochujang into easy-to-swallow American standbys, including a bibimbap burger, L.A.-style chicken quesadillas, a Korean-inspired ketchup and grilled flank steak. Perhaps her favorite is a Smoked Salmon “Pizza” Two Ways.

“Gochujang has a depth of flavor, so it can flavor anything,” she says. “But in general it has taken a little longer to take off because it has not been very well marketed.”

A recent trip to 888 International, a well-stocked Asian supermarket in Overland Park, reveals multiple shelves devoted to large jars and tubs of the condiment, most labeled in Korean. A few brands have temperature gauges of mild, medium or hot on the label, but most do not. Clue: one jar had a cartoon of a man with his eyeballs popping out of his head, his mouth on fire.

Shantel Grace and her husband, Tim, used their experience living in Hawaii, where ramen bars are a way of life, and then hired a ramen consultant from Japan to help the navigate the world of Asian spice before opening their year-old Ramen Bowls restaurant in Lawrence.

“Ten years ago I wouldn’t have thought Sriracha would be so hot,” Shantel Grace says. “The funny thing is Japanese and Hawaiian food is not typically spicy; however that’s changing as well.”

Ramen Bowls’ menu includes a version of Korean bibimbap served with a drizzle of Sriracha and a roasted red pepper aioli using Gochujang as an ingredient for a “creamy, spicy effect.” Sriracha also appears in the spicy chicken curry, and shichimi togarashi is sprinkled on an edamame appetizer. The condiments also come on the side of many dishes.

Customers in the college-age demographic are definitely asking for more spice, although one person’s mild can be another person’s hot. And describing the heat level you prefer in words for takeout orders can be amusing for the kitchen staff as they struggle to translate “sort of spicy, spicy but not over-the-top spicy.”

As with anything new to a cook’s repertoire — or a culture’s cuisine — Grace notes, “there’s still a huge learning curve. In Hawaii, togarashi is like a salt and pepper shaker: found on every table.”

Jill Wendholt Silva is Chow Town’s food editor, lead restaurant critic and blog curator. Reach her at jsilva@kcstar.com, tweet @kcstarfood and @chowtownkc or find her on Instagram.

On the tip of our tongue

For kicks, I bought typical hot sauces and pastes used in a variety of Asian countries. They were purchased at 888 International in Overland Park. I sampled these sauces with a friend who collects hot sauces.

Huy Fong Foods Sriracha (Thai): Like a real spicy V8 with a slightly vegetal aftertaste. The heat tingles the tongue. Chili leads the ingredient list.

Lee Kum Kee Sriracha Mayo: Tame. Very little heat going on. Mayonnaise is the first ingredient listed.

Korean Farms Gochujang Roasted Hot Pepper Paste: Smoky, complex but not as grainy as bibimbap sauce. The label says it contains rice powder, sesame oil, garlic, corn syrup, wheat and MSG.

Korean Farms bibimbap: Available in a squirt bottle, it is essentially the same as Gochujang, although it is usually thinned with sesame oil and vinegar. This brand is a bit hotter than Huy Fong Sriracha. The texture is grainy, with a faint smokiness like plum sauce. It contains corn syrup.

Jufran Banana Sauce: A unique flavor with mild heat. Strangely, the Filipino sauce is not at all banana flavored. Use as a cocktail sauce with shrimp, fried clams or for french fries.

ABC Hot & Sweet Chili Sauce: An intriguing, candy-colored sauce from Indonesia made by Heinz that is a bit sweeter than ketchup with a deceptive afterburn. Contains tomato paste and thickened with tapioca.

A Taste of Thai Garlic Chili Pepper Sriracha Sauce: Mild, like Dorothy Lynch salad dressing. To call this Sriracha is a misnomer. There is no lingering heat. It has the simplest ingredient list of the bunch we tasted.

Roland Thai Style Spicy Sweet Chili Sauce: Very sweet. Little heat. But probably good on eggrolls. Guar gum is the thickener.

“This smoked salmon flatbread is an easy appetizer because you aren’t making a pie crust from scratch,” according to Naomi Imatome-Yun, author of “Cooking With Gochujang.” “Here are two ways to make this — a fresh version and a fully cooked version. The fully cooked version has more heat.”

Smoked Salmon “Pizza” Two Ways

Makes 2 appetizer servings

1 (9- by 12-inch lavash (flatbread)

Olive oil, for brushing

2 tablespoons whipped cream cheese

2 tablespoons Gochujang, room temperature

1 teaspoon fresh dill, removed from stems

1 tomato, sliced

4 ounces thinly sliced smoked salmon

1/2 red onion, thinly sliced

Small handful of dill leaves on stems

Fresh pepper to taste

For the fully cooked version: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Brush the lavash with olive oil on both sides. Combine the cream cheese, Gochujang and dill. Spread the cream cheese mixture on top of the lavash. Layer the tomato, smoked salmon, onion and dill stems on top.

Bake for about 4 to 5 minutes, or until the sides of the lavash start to turn golden. Don’t bake too long or the crust will become too brittle.

Season with fresh pepper to taste.

For the fresh version: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Heat the lavash up in the oven for 3 to 4 minutes, until the sides of the lavash start to turn golden. Combine the cream cheese, Gochujang and dill. Set aside.

Remove the lavash from oven and brush the top with olive oil. Spread the cream cheese mixture on top. Layer the tomato, smoked salmon, onion and dill stems on top. Sprinkle fresh pepper on top.

Per serving: 327 calories (58 percent from fat), 21 grams total fat (4 grams saturated), 21 milligrams cholesterol, 19 grams carbohydrates, 15 grams protein, 705 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

Bloody Nara

Makes 1 serving

2 ounces house-infused garlic-wasabi-pepper vodka (see note)

2 ounces Bloody Mary mix

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon Sriracha

Splash of fresh lime juice

1 tablespoon shichimi togarashi, to rim the glass

Lime wheel and an olive, optional garnishes

Pour vodka, Bloody Mary mix, soy sauce, Sriracha and lime juice into a cocktail tumbler and shake. Pour cocktail into a glass rimmed with togarashi, then garnish as desired.

To make infused vodka: Add to 1 (750-milliliter) bottle vodka the following: 4 tablespoons wasabi, 2 tablespooons crushed peppercorns and 1 bulb crushed garlic; stir and allow to infuse for a week.

Per serving: 154 calories (9 percent from fat), trace total fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 4 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 629 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.

Source: Nara: A Japanese Robata

Soft Tofu Stew

“Eating this bubbling hot stew of soft tofu is like being enveloped in a big, mama-bear hug. It’s warm, comforting, and is an instant mood-lifter,” Naomi Imatome-Yun writes in “Cooking With Gochujang. “Called soondubu in Korean, this is another dish that you can make personal and easily adjust to your spice level and flavor preference. My regular soondubu place in L.A. customizes every single order to spice level, broth type and protein of choice.

“In restaurants, soondubuchigae is served bubbling hot in traditional earthenware bowls. Raw egg is added to the stew and folded into the contents to cook from the heat within the bowl. Soft tofu stew with no spice is referred to as “white” in Korean restaurants (for the color of the stew).

“Many Korean people like their soondubu with pork and kimchi, and it is a fantastic combination. But most of the time I crave it with clams, kimchi and an anchovy base. As always, be creative with your Korean food.”

Makes 4 servings

1/2 pound or 1 cup beef or pork, thinly sliced

1/2 tablespoon garlic, finely chopped

1 tablespoon gochukaru (red pepper powder)

3 tablespoons sesame oil

2 cups anchovy stock, beef stock or water

1 tablespoon Gochujang

2 tablespoons soy sauce

3 cups uncoagulated tofu (see note)

1 pound unshucked clams or 1 cup shucked clams, rinsed

2 scallions, sliced

1 egg (optional)

In a soup pot, stir-fry the beef, garlic and gochukaru in the sesame oil for about 5 minutes. Add the stock, Gochujang and soy sauce to the pot. Bring up to a hard simmer. Add the soft tofu and return to simmer. Add the clams and simmer until the clams are cooked (about 10 minutes), until they shrink or until the shells open (if using unshucked). Add the scallions and egg (if using) and take off heat.

Note: Uncoagulated tofu is usually sold in tubes, but you can use silken tofu if you can’t find the really soft stuff. Just slice it into small cubes and cook as directed.

Per serving: 453 calories (63 percent from fat), 32 grams total fat (8 grams saturated), 62 milligrams cholesterol, 8 grams carbohydrates, 34 grams protein, 1,705 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.

Related stories from Kansas City Star

  Comments