History of Korean gochu, gochujang, and kimchi
Dae Young Kwon
, Dai-Ja Jang
, Hye Jeong Yang
, Kyung Rhan Chung
Korea Food Research Institute, Seongnam, South Korea
The Academy of Korean Studies, Seongnam, South Korea
Received 17 October 2014
Received in revised form
12 November 2014
Accepted 24 November 2014
Available online 8 December 2014
history of kimchi
history of gochujang
history of Korean gochu
The gochu (Korean red pepper) that goes into Korean traditional fermented foods such as kimchi (fer-
mented cabbage) and gochujang (spicy red pepper paste) should have a mild spiciness and its Scoville
heat unit (the unit that measures spiciness) is <1,000. The kimchi and gochujang that are fermented only
with Korean gochu can be eaten. Kimchi and gochujang cannot be prepared even with cheongyangkochu
(Scoville heat unit is approximately 3,000), which is a hybrid of Korean gochu and Thai gochu. When
these foods are prepared with other spicier gochu, such as Thai pepper, Southern Asian red pepper,
Central American red pepper, or Mexico's aji (which is 50 0 times spicier than Korean gochu), they will be
too spicy to consume. Biologically, Korean gochu is different from the red peppers of Central American
countries (such as Mexico and Colombia), Indonesia, India, and Thailand. Therefore, the statement that
the Central American red pepper came to Korea during the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592 is not true.
We can refer to a research paper in the magazine “Nature” that Korea's gochu arrived at the Korean
peninsula millions of years ago, having been spread by birds. It states that gochu has evolved for millions
of years, therefore, we can infer that Korean gochu existed as a completely different variety. In addition,
gochujang and kimchi can be made using gochu only, which proves that people in Korea cultivated gochu
thousands of years ago and have been eating it since then. Furthermore, many old Korean documents
support the fact that Koreans have been planting and harvesting gochu for the last 1,500 years.
Copyright © 2014, Korea Food Research Institute, Published by Elsevier. All rights reserved.
In agricultural history, storage of agriculture products and gro-
ceries has been the main focus of survival in all countries. In Korea,
the development of fermented foods began in order to extend their
storability. Normally, vegetables, such as a cabbage (previously
called Chinese cabbage, but is now referred to as kimchi cabbage),
decompose at normal temperatures as an action of microorganisms
and, therefore, cannot be consumed. However, if special in-
gredients, such as red pepper powder (containing capsaicin), are
added, the growth of putrefactive bacteria is suppressed and
Lactobacillus (lactic acid bacteria) grows. These microorganisms
grow and change into a form that humans can consume, solving the
issue of storability. In Korea, microorganisms, such as Bacillus and
Aspergillus, are used to ferment soybeans, producing cheonggukjang
(fermented soybean) and doenjang (fermented soybean paste), and
extending their storability. As a result, the food can be served as a
side dish with the main rice dish.
The most famous fermented food products in Korea are kimchi
and gochujang. Gochujang is made using meju powder which was
making while doenjang. Gochujang is produced by mixing meju
powder with glutinous rice powder and red pepper powder, and
then the mixture is fermented. Kimchi is another fermented food
used in Korea, and is a popular side dish that makes other foods
taste better. Kimchi comprises vegetables such as cabbage and
white radish, along with the most important ingredient gochu
(Korean red pepper) powder. Due to the presence of red pepper
powder, the putrefactive microorganisms can be controlled and
advantageous lactic acid fermentation occurs. Red pepper powder
is the main ingredient in kimchi fermentation.
Thus, when talking about Korea's fermented foods, one needs to
consider gochu and its history, variety, and taste. In old Korean
documents, records of gochu, kimchi, and gochujang can be found.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative
Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License (http://creativecommons.org/
licenses/by-nc/3.0) which permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution,
and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
* Corresponding author. Korea Food Research Institute, 62, Anyangpangyo-ro
1201 beon-gil, Seongnam, Gyeongki-do 463-746, South Korea.
E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org (D.Y. Kwon).
Contents lists available at ScienceDirect
Journal of Ethnic Foods
journal homepage: http://journalofethnicfoods.net
2352-6181/Copyright © 2014, Korea Food Research Institute, Published by Elsevier. All rights reserved.
J Ethn Foods 1 (2014) 3e7
These records allow us to observe the uniqueness of Korea's gochu
along with the history and science of kimchi and gochujang, Korea's
own traditional fermented foods.
2. Gochu used in Korean fermented foods
With scientiﬁc development, there have been numerous studies
on the varieties of gochu. Red pepper can be divided into four
categories. The most typical is the Capsicum annuum category,
which includes the Korean gochu, Hungarian pepper (paprika),
China's Sichuan pepper (choncho: 川椒), Italian pepper, and Greek
pepper . Normally, these types of red peppers are only a few
times spicier than the Korean gochu, but are not extremely spicy.
Korean gochu is special because it also tastes sweet. In fact, vitamin
C was found in paprika in 1933 . Regarding the peppers that are
included in the Capsicum vaccatum category, a particular kind of
Fig. 1. The Chodo in rectangular box the island where gochu was planted, is written about in (A) “The Chronicles of Three States (三國史記)” (Kim Bu-sil, early Goryeo, 1145) and in (B)
Mankiyoram (萬機要覽) described the chodo is the land where gochu cultivated in detail (1808).
J Ethn Foods 2014; 1: 3e74
pepper was transferred from West India to Spain in the late 15
century by Columbus. It is approximately 500 times spicier than the
Korean gochu and is called aji [the Scoville heat unit (SHU),
30,0 00e50,000]. South Africa's less spicy peppers are also included
in this category. The Capsicum chinense category includes nagajo-
lokia (Indian pepper, SHU 855,000e1,000,0 00), which is more than
1,000 times spicier than the Korean gochu. Central and South
American peppers are also included in this list. The Capsicum fru-
tescenes category includes Thai pepper (SHU 75,000e150,000),
which is 400e500 times spicier than Korean gochu. Accordingly,
the popular belief stating that the Central and South American red
pepper, aji, came to Korea during the Japanese invasion of Korea
through the route of Thailand and India is not scientiﬁcally viable
. Without current genetic engineering skills, these kinds of red
peppers (peppers from Central and South America, Thailand, and
India) would take millions or billions of years to evolve into Korea's
gochu. The recent research states that gochu appeared on the earth
billions of years ago , and might have been transferred by the
birds that ate them [5,6]. One of the reasons for this statement was
that some birds lack the receptor (TRPV1, vanilloid receptor) that
helps register the spiciness of food, allowing them to ﬂy even after
consuming gochu that are much spicier than Korean gochu. This was
investigated and observed through a video recording .
Therefore, it is impossible that Korea's gochu was transferred
from Central America within such a short period of time (tens of
years). In addition, Korea's gochu was transferred through a
different route from that of Mexico's red pepper and became a
native Korean species. Based on scientiﬁc evidence, gochu started to
grow on the Korean peninsula a few billions of years ago, and it is
safe to say that it is original to Korea. In addition, gochujang and
kimchi can possibly be made with Mexican or Thai red peppers, but
they cannot be eaten as kimchi or gochujang because of their
extreme spiciness. In the cytological sense, gochu that is made into
gochujang and kimchi can only be grown and harvested on the
3. Kimchi and gochujang in Korea's old documents
There are many books that mention the cultivation of gochu on
the Korean peninsula. There are no records that show that gochu
grew in the wild; however, because it was recorded in “
of Dongyi in the Book of Wei, the records of the Three Kingdoms, 三
國志魏志東夷傳” (years 233e297, Chen Shou) for the ﬁrst time, it
can be veriﬁed that it existed on the Korean peninsula 2,000 years
ago. If “The Chronicles of Three States (三國史記)” (Kim Bu-sik, early
Goryeo) is examined, records [Chodo (椒島), the island where gochu
was planted; Fig. 1] show that gochu was already being cultivated
during the period of the three kingdoms of the Korean peninsula,
Kokuro, Paekje, and Shilla (37
), indicating that the de-
mand for gochu was high even during that time. In addition, it can
also be inferred that gochujang and kimchi were being made by
fermenting gochu during this period as well.
The Chinese letter “Jeo (Zu, 菹)” shows that the word kimchi
appears (in Hunmongjahoi; Fig. 2) in the “Book of Odes (Sikyung, 詩
Fig. 2. The Chinese character Jeo (Zu,菹) in the box, which represents the kimchi, written clearly in the book of Hunmojahoi by Choi Se-jin (1473?e1542) in chosun dynasty.
K.D. Young et al / Korean gochu, gochujang, and kimchi 5
Fig. 3. The Chinese word “Chojang (椒醬),” in the box. which represents gochujang is mentioned in the book “Sikui-simgam (食醫心鑒, Book for Alimentotherapist)” a book
published in the year 850
AD. This means Korean people have their fermented red pepper paste, gochujang.
Fig. 4. In Sasichanyocho, 四時纂要抄 (Kang Huimaeng, 1482e148 3), the agricultural period and season of gochu harvesting have been mentioned. This means gochu was cultivated
in Korean peninsula in early age.
J Ethn Foods 2014; 1: 3e76
經)” (around 500
). The Chinese word that represents gochujang
[“Chojang (椒醬)”] is mentioned in the book “Sikui-simgam (食醫心
鑒, Book for Alimentotherapist),” a book published in the year 850
The precise period of harvesting gochu has also been recorded as
August in the lunar calendar, which illustrates the fact that gochu
harvesting was considered a very exact and important agricultural
period (Sasichanyocho, 四時纂要抄, Kang Huimaeng, 1482e1483;
Fig. 4 ). From these records, it is evident that the history of kimchi
and gochujang dates back to at least 1,500 years ago and quite
possibly even earlier (> 2,000 years). The famous Sunchang
gochujang (Sunchang is the southern west part of Korea) appears in
the “Somunsaseol (謏聞事設)” of Lee Si-pil, and has been described
very scientiﬁcally (Fig. 5). Thus, it can be assumed that Sunchang
gochujang was famous hundreds of years prior to when Lee Si-pil
started recording it.
In Korea, kimchi and gochujang are fermented foods that contain
gochu powder. The Korean red pepper (gochu) that goes into Korean
traditional foods must be originally from Korea, and kimchi and
gochujang can be made using only this variety of pepper. The SHU of
the gochu has to be <1,000, similar to the SHU of the Korean gochu,
in order for the foods to ferment. When it is made with spicier red
pepper, such as cheongyanggochu (SHU, 2,500), Thai pepper, or
Mexico's aji, which is approximately 500 times spicier than Korean
gochu, it cannot be consumed due to extreme spiciness. Even
biologically, Korean gochu is different from those from Mexico,
Central America, Indonesia, India, and Thailand. Therefore, that
statement claiming that Korean gochu arrived during the Japanese
invasion of Korea (1592) from Mexico is false. Korean gochu existed
as a separate variety of pepper, different from Mexican and Thai
peppers. If one looks at old references, Koreans have been making
their own fermented foods such as kimchi and gochujang for
thousands of years. The records from the period of the Three States
(1,500 years ago) prove that Koreans have been planting and har-
vesting gochu for a long time.
Conﬂicts of interest
The authors have no conﬂ
icts of interest.
 Kwon DY, Chung KR, Yang HJ and Jangl DJ. Story of Korea red pepper. Seoul,
Korea: Hyoyil; 2011.
 Svirbely JL and Szent-Gy
orgyi A. The chemical nature of vitamin C. Biochem J
 Bae MH and Lee SW. A research on the history of gochu. Res Inst Kor Life Sci
 Tewksbury JJ and Nabhan GP. Seed dispersal: directed deterrence by capsaicin
in chilies. Nature 2001;412:403e4.
 Levey DJ, Tewksbury JJ, Cipollini ML and Carlo TA. A ﬁeld test of the
directed deterrence hypothesis in two species of wild chili. Oecologia
 Fricke EC, Simon MJ, Reagan KM, Levey DJ, Riffell JA, Carlo TA and Tewksbury JJ.
When condition trumps location: seed consumption by fruit eating birds
removes pathogens and predator attractants. Ecol Lett 2013;16:1031e6.
Fig. 5. Preparation of the famous Sunchang gochujang (Sunchang is the southern west part of Korea) is described very scientiﬁcally in the “Somunsaseol (謏聞事設)” of Lee Si-pil
K.D. Young et al / Korean gochu, gochujang, and kimchi 7