If you've ever tried Korean food, chances are good you've encountered gochujang, the spicy yet sweet red paste that's a staple in Korean kitchens. Gochujang is made by mixing red chili powder with fermented soybeans, according to the Korean Food Foundation, and it's used in countless Korean dishes, from rice bowls and rice cake stir fries to marinades. Gochujang's versatility isn't limited to Korean cooking though, a fact that chef David Lee set out to prove at the Grand Tasting at this year's New York City Wine and Food Festival by serving chicken meatballs with tomato sauce. Yes, meatballs. "I wanted to try our main ingredient with what they know already, which is meatball and pasta," he explained. "Why not?"

Chef Lee, who's the executive chef at gastropub Osamil in Manhattan's Koreatown, made a standard Italian red sauce but swapped out red chili flakes with gochujang. "So when people look at it, [they think,] ‘Oh, I think I know it,’ and they try it," he said. "Little different flavor, and they ask me, ‘Why is this a little bit different? In a good way?’ Because we used Korean ingredient, which is gochujang."

And really, that subtle flavor is part of the beauty of gochujang and why it's a perfect substitute for Sriracha. It's spicy, sure. But it's not "crazy like a jalapeno," explained chef Lee, noting, "It’s just a little kick in it." Much like Sriracha, you can cover your dish with gochujang without feeling like your tongue's on fire, and you should feel free to put this spicy Korean paste on everything, just like you do with Sriracha.

I talked with chef Lee about the one piece of gear that'll help you make better Korean food, how to eat fermented chilis for breakfast, and why gochujang is the best substitute for Sriracha.

On the Korean “mother sauces”
Jang is all about fermentation. I can say that’s our mother sauce of Korean cuisine. Jang is basically soy sauce, gochujang, doengjang. I can say those are the Korean, top three mother sauces.

On eating gochujang for breakfast
You can use gochujang paste on grilled cheese, instead of tomato chutney. Or treat it like jam or jelly. Just spread a little bit on toast. Or you can mix it with mayonnaise to make spicy mayonnaise. You don’t have to look for Sriracha.

On the difference between Japanese miso and Korean doenjang
Doenjang is fermented soybean paste. [It’s] similar to Japanese miso paste. Japanese miso paste is made with fermented bean powder, but doenjang is the whole bean, like whole block. So it has a more deep and thick flavor, very strong flavor. But if you treat it like miso paste? It is very funky, cheesy, nice flavor.

On the one piece of gear you need to cook Korean food at home
A blender. Because in Korean [cuisine], especially cooking protein, almost the whole recipe of Korean cuisine, we marinate. So to make the marinade a liquid or paste, any mixture? Blender is best. Vitamix. Expensive, but it’s useful. [Laughs] Listening, Vitamix? Give me one! [Laughs]