The Korean people have made hot sauce for over a thousand years, but for centuries they mostly made due with black pepper. When Portugese sea traders introduced chili peppers to East Asia in the 16th century, Koreans must have been delighted. There could never be an excuse for a boring bibimbap again.
The Koreans soon invented gochujang: a sweet, spicy, savory red paste made of powdered chili, sticky rice, and fermented soybeans, with salt for good measure. Gochujang remains a household staple in Korea to this day, yet hasn’t gone mainstream in America the way some other spicy Asian sauces have. KC Kye of K-Mama Sauce is changing that.
“I was born to an immigrant family in New Jersey,” said KC. “My father was a Presbyterian minister, and my mother stayed at home. I didn’t know how lucky I was to have her until later in life, when I found out my friends’ moms couldn’t cook.
“After studying business and nonprofit focuses in college, I enrolled in seminary school in Princeton. I never wanted to do pulpit ministry, though — I wanted to engage with the neighborhood, raising funds and stocking food banks. Thankfully I met with Rev. Dr. Jin S. Kim several times on my campus. He understood how I wanted to work for the church, as well as my family’s history of businessmen. In a heart to heart talk he explained that I would make a better businessman than a pastor.
“‘Do your business, but do it for the church,’ Rev. Dr. Kim said to me. He had noticed that I love dousing everything in gochujang sauce, so he gave me the idea to make it accessible to Minnesotans, using his ministry at Church of All Nations in Columbia Heights as a base of operations.
“I took Dr. Kim’s advice and started K-Mama Sauce with the goal of giving at least 30 percent of profits back to the church and other charities. I modeled the business after other successful social enterprises like Newman’s Own and Tom’s Shoes, and tested out 50 iterations of gochujang in the church kitchen. With my mom’s help, I finally created a sauce good enough to offer at farmers’ markets. I became a Jersey boy selling Korean hot sauce in Minnesota.
“Gochujang is the main ingredient in K-Mama Sauce. On its own the paste is too thick and salty, so we add sesame oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar, and a little bit of brown sugar. As we learned what our farmers’ market customers preferred, we started making K-Mama sauce gluten-free, MSG-free, and non-GMO, and even vegan by taking honey out of the original recipe. We were lucky to get such valuable feedback early on.
“Ironically, the people most skeptical about K-Mama Sauce are other Koreans. Gochujang is like Korea’s secret culinary weapon, so they all have their own family recipes for it. We’re not going to convince them that ours is better, so the people who are most likely to embrace K-Mama Sauce are the ones who have little or no experience with gochujang.
“Because of Korea’s temperate climate, its traditional cooking doesn’t use a lot of fruits and spices. Gochujang was invented to remedy bland food. Of course K-Mama Sauce is perfect on Korean food, but we balanced its sweet, savory, tangy, and spicy flavors to complement everything from pizza to burgers. We tell people to put it on their sandwiches, stir fries, salmon, shrimp, and hot dishes, and that it even makes a great Bloody Mary.
“We’ve enjoyed a lot of success making Korean flavor accessible to everyone. We won the Specialty Food Association’s sofi Award the year we went gluten-free, and have long since upgraded to a commercial kitchen. Now I personally deliver bottles of original flavor and spicy flavor K-Mama Sauce to grocery stores across the Twin Cities, and we’re on Amazon as well. Watching this traditional cuisine coming to the forefront is great!”
You can learn more about KC and his mission, look up recipes, find out where K-Mama Sauce is sold, and order bottles online at kmamasauce.com.
By David Scheller