Why Is Korean Food So Spicy?

By Bill HappySpicyHour • Updated: 04/29/22 • 7 min read
Korean Food

According to popular opinion, most Asian countries share the same spice palette, but a close study proves otherwise. Little difference exists among traditional Asian cuisines that we can trace to their spice combination. The Japanese love their mildly flavored food, focusing on ingredient harmony, while Thai cuisine is known for its pepperiness. However, as Korean cuisine gains global recognition, one must know if they are genuinely as spicy as people claim they are.

Korean foods seem spicy because they incorporate chili paste rich in capsaicin in almost every meal. Although chili isn’t the highest-ranking pepper on the Scoville test, Korean cooking methods based chiefly on fermentation and boiling create a high temperature and ingredient-dense medium for flavors to diffuse rapidly. When the foods hit your taste buds and receptors, you perceive an intense flavoring that your brain interprets as spicy.

Generally, Korean cuisine serves rice and other grains as their main dish or staples, which you would expect to taste bland. So, we have the question inquiring why Korean foods are so spicy? In this article, you will discover a solid explanation for the spiciness of Koren cuisine and why it is becoming a big deal today. Keep reading to learn more! 

What Does Spicy Mean for Traditional Korean Cuisine?

Spice for Koreans means more than just hot stuff. It means all plants, seeds, and parts that possess aromatic and other exotic flavors adding excitement to food. Essentially, most Korean foods are not entirely hot and peppery. Traditional Korean cuisine combines a fine blend of peppers with other spices and salt to create the spiciness that most people taste. 

Furthermore, Koreans also view spices as medicine and use many of them in their cooking for their health benefits.

Here is a table showing different Korean foods, health benefits and medicinal usage.

Korean foodEssential ingredientsHealth benefitsNutritional valueTaste
Kimchispicy fermented cabbage.Aids digestive/Immune functions.Probiotics (lactobacillus)/vitamins.sour/spicy
Kongnamul GukBean sprout roots.Relieves hangovers. Vitamin C/Asparagines. Spicy
Doenjang pasteFermented soybean paste. 
Digestive health/protein source

Protein source/vitamins balances hormones.salty 
Gochujang

Hot peppers/capsaicin.Intestinal /Digestive health/ Fat burning.Capsaicin. 
Hot/peppery/spicy, 

Korean Gastronomy: Factors Influencing the Spiciness of Korean Foods

Korean Food

Gastronomy refers to the interrelationship between food and the cultural tradition of a group of people or civilizations. A considerable part of the spiciness of Korean foods comes from other extraneous factors besides the spice ingredients. 

Some schools of thought propose evolutionary biology to explain that the Koreans have a specific spice palette with an extreme affinity for spicy foods. Other schools of thought assert that the Koreans consider spices as mood enhancers and incorporate lots of spices into their cuisine to help the locals deal with stress. 

Some others think it’s a game of perception over taste buds. However, a critical analysis of Korean gastronomy highlights one principal factor behind the spiciness of Korean foods—cooking/ preparation methods!

The Koreans favor fermentation as the principal method of food preparation, both for preserving food integrity and flavor. Most spices contain potent phytochemicals that preserve food integrity to keep them fresh while holding their natural flavors in place. 

However, a thin line appears during the fermentation process- More often than not, fermentation requires preserving foods like vegetables in high salt and spice containing liquid for a long time in airtight containers. 

Spices and condiments are either fermented or unfermented for traditional Korean cuisine. Here is a table showing Korean foods and spices/condiments of fermented and unfermented types.

Fermented condimentsNon-fermented condiments
Doenjang (fermented soybean paste)
Ganjang (soy sauce)
Gochujang (Korean chili paste)
Jeotgal (Fermented fish sauce)
Vinegar
Red pepper
Black pepper
Chinensis
Garlic
Onions
Mustard
Cordifolia

The final taste of most fermented foods is a sour and salty taste like kimchi. Timing also plays a significant role in how spices develop in Korean cuisine. The spices are added much later during the cooking process, causing you to taste them before they can blend entirely with the rest of the food. 

For example, Korean barbecue is prepared by sprinkling the spice mixes over the fish as it cooks to create the intense flavor associated with most Korean dishes. 

Food preparation methods like pickling, fermentation, boiling and seasoning create a warm nutrient-dense liquid environment for the spicy flavor to blend. So we wonder why most Korean foods have a fiery feel if the whole idea of Korean spiciness is not focused on pepper?

Why Do Spicy Korean Foods Have a Fiery Pepper Feel?

Korean Food and fiery peppers

No one knows when and how people started eating pepper. Similarly, no one knows why the Koreans love pepper so much and why their foods feel fiery. 

The most common pepper featured in Korean cuisine is the red chili, known for its phytochemical capsaicin. However, we know a general correlation exists between salt and pepper. Also, most Korean foods feature lots of meat which requires salt and pepper to preserve and enhance its flavor. 

The limitation or absence of dairy products in Korean cuisine adds to the increased spiciness since dairy reduces spiciness by having the protein molecules bind to and mop up the capsaicin molecules off your tongue receptors. 

Fun Fact: Pure capsaicin measures 15,000,000 Scoville heat units, almost the hottest on the scale before ghost peppers. 

Does Korean Food Have a Philosophy Behind It?

Korean food traditionally centers around family and togetherness. Here are the main principles of Korean cuisine;

  1. Nature and time

The principle of nature and time emphasizes the reliance on the seasonal availability associated with vegetables. 

  1. Food is medicine

The Koreans believe that health starts with what you eat. So, they incorporate methods that support better health and a robust immune system in their cooking methods. For example, kimchi supports the gut microbiome and general health.

  1. Balance

Although most Korean dishes have intense flavors because of the spices incorporated in their preparation, the Koreans balance their dishes with stable primary dishes of grains that taste blander. For example, bibimbap balances carbohydrates, fiber and protein in one meal. 

FAQs:

What Do Koreans Have As Their Main Dish?

Traditional Korean cuisine serves rice as their main dish, accompanied by soup and banchan as side dishes. Other grains that would taste blandly are also served as Korean main dishes in most Korean homes. However, most Korean restaurants have been serving the side dishes as the main dishes to customers in recent times.

What Has Made Korean Cuisine Recently Famous?

Korean foods are famous for their authentic spiciness and flavor naturally generated from food fermentation and preservation. The global trend for understanding and experimenting with as many natural and local spices as possible makes Korean spices famous.

How Can You Describe the Taste of a Typical Korean Dish?

Korean dishes possess an intense flavor of spices, mostly salt and pepper. Some spices are aromatic and pungent, totally dominating the food. Also, they are primarily associated with side dishes like soups and stews. A typical Korean dish is served as a main dish of grains to accompany the spicy side dishes, creating a balanced taste.

Final Thoughts

Most people believe that Koreans make their foods overly spicy as an adaptive measure to help them cope with stress by stimulating the release of endorphins and adrenaline after consumption. However, spicy Korean cuisines are primarily influenced by the traditional food preparation system and flavor preservation. 

Additionally, Korean dishes are big on unifying the medicinal and nutritional benefits while preserving taste which is why they have evolved to become a global culinary delight. 

Bill HappySpicyHour

I am Bill, I am the Owner of HappySpicyHour, a website devoted to spicy food lovers like me. Ramen and Som-tum (Papaya Salad) are two of my favorite spicy dishes. Spicy food is more than a passion for me - it's my life! For more information about this site Click

Keep Reading