Chasing Gochujang at Ko Cha

tofuBasic logic suggests a city’s sole purveyor of just about anything has a distinct economic advantage. But what happens when he or she gets tired of selling it?

Tucked into a West Ashley gas station is Ko Cha, an excellent Korean luncheonette. The folksy restaurant serves up scallion pancakes lumpy with sweet, fat shrimp; slinky japchae intertwined with fresh vegetables and an outstandingly crisped chicken donkkaseu (the Korean version of katsu, the popular Japanese cutlet), drizzled with a cross between fermented fish sauce and British brown gravy, per tradition. The kimchi is perhaps a smidge tactful for fans of raging funk, but the cucumber pickles have a lightly-spiced snap.

Understandably, many local fans of Korean cooking flock to Ko Cha — which previously did business under the name of Rice B – for their gochujang fix. The defining condiment of Korean cuisine, gochujang is a sonorous mix of chile peppers, fermented soybeans, glutinous rice and sugar. Nothing else exactly resembles the paste.

That’s what a man seated at a table next to mine wanted when he ordered an off-menu dubu muchim,  or sauced fresh tofu. But when his plate arrived, he poked at it unenthusiastically. When a server asked if there was a problem, the frowning man’s Korean-speaking wife explained he’d wanted red sauce, pointing to pictures he’d called up on his cell phone.

japchaeThe server fetched the chef, who was dumbfounded by the man’s request. His dish was made with higher-quality tofu! It was light! It was pretty! (The woman later confirmed it was all of the above.) How could somebody want gochujang when faced with a dish that represented more sophisticated – and perhaps more authentic – techniques?

But the reality is most diners at a city’s only dedicated Korean restaurant aren’t coming for a challenge: They’re looking to quell a craving, and it’s usually gochujang-related.

“When people come to a Korean restaurant, if they don’t get gochujang, they think it’s not authentic,” the woman sighed when I asked her about the prolonged dish discussion. Just as Western diners in a Chinese restaurant expect everything to be soaked with soy, she said, Western diners in a Korean restaurant are sticklers for gochujang.

She’s got me pegged. My spirits sank when I asked for something to spice up my japchae and was given Sriracha instead of a saucer of gochujang.

My standard Korean order is sundubu jjigae, a spicy soft tofu stew with seafood, but I stupidly didn’t ask whether it was available when I didn’t see it on the menu. As I learned from Mrs. Dubu Muchim, Ko Cha makes a version that she considers the “number one sundubu,” outranking sundubus served at Korean restaurants in New York City.

The remnants of her order appeared to back her up: The bottom of the stone bowl held a whole crab (a very cool lowcountry touch) and broth bright with gochujang. I’m definitely going back.

Ko Cha is located at 3515 Mary Ader Ave. For more information (especially if your Korean language skills are good), call 766-0301. N.B.: The restaurant’s open every day, including Christmas.

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