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K-food boom

Korea's signature sauce gochujang goes global, riding on K-wave

Oct 19, 2020 (Gmt+09:00)

South Korea’s food exports have surged on the back of Korean dramas, more popularly known as K-dramas, gaining global popularity particularly in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. International viewers have taken an interest in cooking Korean dishes featured in K-dramas, leading to a rise in outbound shipments of the country’s signature spices and sauces such as gochujang, a fermented red chili paste widely used in Korean dishes.

Outbound shipments of this fermented bean, spice and pepper paste in the first nine months of the year amounted to $73.4 million, a 31% increase from the same period a year earlier. During this period, gochujang led the country's export boom of Korean sauces, with its shipments worth $38 million marking a 38% rise from the same period of last year. Korea exported $37.6 million worth of gochujang for all of 2019.


“Overseas consumption of gochujang increased owing to the explosive popularity of Korean dishes such as tteokbokki (spicy red rice cakes), bibimbap (a rice dish mixed with meat and assorted vegetables) and fried kimchi rice, which were all publicized on streaming platforms such as Youtube and Netflix after the outbreak of COVID-19,” said an official at the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

Global K-drama hit Itaewon Class, which aired earlier this year, is a prime example. The drama featured a rivalry among Korean restaurants competing for the coveted position of top restaurant, and showed popular Korean dishes such as gochujang bulgogi (spicy grilled meat) and soondubu jjigae (spicy soft tofu stew).

The drama was a huge hit in Southeast Asian countries including Thailand and Malaysia, contributing to a significant rise in gochujang exports, the agriculture ministry said.

Outbound shipments of gochujang have steadily increased since the late 2000s. The export volume touched around 4,483 tons in 2008 and surpassed the 10,000-ton mark in 2012. Exports rose further to 17,686 tons in 2019, almost quadrupling in 12 years. The number of export countries also nearly doubled from 56 to 106 in 12 years.

“Some 80% of exported gochujang was shipped to the US, China and Japan in the past, but now export destinations are diversifying and we’re seeing increased shipments to countries like Taiwan, Vietnam and Canada,” said the ministry official.

A pot of gochujang

The agriculture ministry said the diversification of gochujang exports could also be due to lower tariffs as a result of free trade agreements with various countries.

“As for China, we included fermented bean and chili paste on the list of 11 key export items, and used online influencers to promote Korean cooking recipes, which led to big success,” said another agriculture ministry official.

The Korean government expects the exports of gochujang to continue to rise as the paste got the stamp of approval from the Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex) last week.

“Non-tariff barriers are lowered for exports of food items acknowledged by Codex standards,” said the ministry official.

Codex is an international body made up of 189 member countries, which decide on international food guidelines, global food standards and policies. The agriculture ministry has been pushing to standardize gochujang since 2002.

Gochujang was one of the three Korean food items recently recognized as meeting Codex international standards, alongside kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage) and ginseng products.

“We will continue with our efforts to receive official international approval for our food items in a move to boost our competitiveness,” said Park Byung-hong, the Director at the Food Industry Policy Division.

Write to Jin-gyu Kang at josep@hankyung.com

Danbee Lee edited this article.

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