Korean food is a surprising outlier among Asian cuisines in its affinity for potatoes. They became a staple during the first half of the 20th century, when the Japanese occupied the region and Koreans were forced to export their rice.
Korean culture was primed for the transition. The ancient vegetarian Buddhist kingdom that once ruled the peninsula had essentially banned meat for 700 years, resulting in many innovative vegetable dishes. That devotion led us to a surprisingly fresh way to prepare potatoes.
Like rice, potatoes are an ideal neutral starch for absorbing the robust seasonings common in Korean cooking. They show up most often as gamja jorim, a dish often served as part of banchan, or small plates that also include dried seafood, salads and kimchi.
In gamja jorim, the potatoes are peeled and cubed, then braised in a blend of garlic, soy sauce and sweetener. As the potatoes cook, the liquid simmers off, leaving behind a rich savory-sweet glaze.
At Milk Street, we loved the simplicity of using the same liquid to simultaneously cook, season and coat the potatoes. But we also wanted to build in more flavor. For that, we added mirin, a sweet rice wine from Japan, and gochujang, Korea’s fermented chili paste (see sidebar). Combined with white sugar, soy sauce and garlic, they gave our glaze a more balanced sweetness and moderate heat.
After the potatoes finished cooking, a dash of rice vinegar brightened the other flavors. Sesame seeds lent a bit of texture, and a final sprinkle of scallions added freshness.
Many of the core flavors of Korean food are built from jang, a family of fermented soybean-based condiments. The simplest, made from soybeans, salt and water, is ganjang (soy sauce), of which there are dozens of varieties. One of the most complex— and the most popular in the U.S.—is gochujang, a spicy red paste with a texture and savoriness similar to Japanese miso. To make it, traditional methods call for hand-mixing a slurry of soy sauce, sticky rice, salt, malt and chili powder, then fermenting the mixture in large clay pots left outside in the sun. The pots—called onggi—are porous, which helps foster fermentation. Though six months is acceptable, the best gochujangs are aged for as long as five years. It’s an essential flavor in jjigae stews and often shows up in the marinades for Korean barbecue.