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Posted by on Feb 14, 2017 in Commentary, Ingredients, Korean Food | 0 comments

Discover the motherland of Korea’s chilies

Discover the motherland of Korea’s chilies

South Korean cuisine is so interconnected in many minds with spicy red chilis that one can’t imagine Korean cuisine without them. But for much these peppers weren’t a part of it, or dishes in much of the world, for a lot of recorded history.

고추장 gochujang (red chili paste) is one of the “mother sauces” of 한식 hanshik (Korean cuisine), forming the bedrock of many South Korean recipes. Dabs of this sauce featuring ground sun-dried chilies liven dishes as diverse as 비빔밥 bibimbap (mixed ingredients with rice), 닭갈비 dakgalbi (spicy barbecued chicken) and 김치찌개 kimchi jjigae (kimchi stew).

Most gochujang in South Korea is made in industrial quantities. On grocery or specialty food store shelves, gochujang often is easily recognized by the red-lidded jar or all-red tub, a convention among the major producers. 

Gochujang paste
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Korean grocery shelves are lined with many brands of gochujang. The red tubs are such a standard form of marketing, one doesn’t have to read hangul (Korean script) to know what one is buying. (Tammy Quackenbush photo)

Few people know the ancient source of the chilies for Korea’s spicy kimchi and dishes wasn’t even Asia. Bolivia is the ancestral motherland of the humble chili, according to science. Specifically, these peppers come from the region between the modern cities of Sucre and Cochabamba,  located in the southwestern heartland of the country. 

The motherland of the chili has its own hot sauce recipe. Llajwa is made with a chili variety called locotos, stone-ground into a paste.

“The locoto is the only pepper for which scientists have not found a wild relative.”

—Denver Nicks, “A Journey to the Homeland of Hot Sauce,” Traveler, National Geographic Society, Jan. 30, 2017

In other words, humans have cultivated the locoto pepper for eons. 

But these chilies would have remained hidden from the both the West and the Far East if Spanish explorers and colonists hadn’t arrived to explore and exploit South America’s bounty in the 15th century. From South America, the Portuguese brought the chili to both Japan and Korea. But it was in Korea where spicy chilies became so popular that one would never think they weren’t a native part of Korean cuisine. 

In today’s political climate, “cultural appropriation” is considered a slur. But cultures only can grow and evolve when they moderately “appropriate” items from the cultures with which they interact. Those interactions can originate from free trade, immigration or colonization.

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