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how spicy is Korean food s'posed to be?

All this talk about truly spicy thai food made me think about a meal I had last week at Ohgane.

The "spicy pork" lunch special was delicious (and the pachan, a joy). But I was disappointed with the chili pepper factor. It was barely spicy. So I'm wondering - is that just the preparation for foreigners? Or is that the cultural norm?

Any thoughts?

3915 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94611

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  1. this topic is better suited for the general chowhound board, unless you're talking about the spice variables of bay area specific restaurants.

    i had some incendiary dishes in korea, but it has been years. in general i don't think of korean food as being nearly as spicy as people suppose. depends on the cook, the region, the dish, etc.

    1. Fair enough, my "August" iner hounder.

      So really, my question is:
      Can anyone recommend a Korean resto that uses more chilis in the cooking and ups the ante on the level of "picante" in the food?

      6 Replies
      1. re: escargot3

        Yep, To Hyang (at 2nd & Geary, in San Francisco) comes to mind. I usually order "spicy" at most restaurants, but here I have to get "medium" or even "mild." One of the waitresses told me when she saw me burning up that her aunt just brought back hot peppers from Korea -- spicier than anything you can find here. One good dish is the dak dori tang (spicy chicken stew).

        You will feel the heat in some of the panchan too.

        To Hyang
        3815 Geary Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94118

        1. re: Radical347

          That supports what i've read, that Korean-Americans have adapted to using less spicy chiles. So while a restaurant could add more chiles to please a customer who wanted hotter food, it might throw off the flavor.

          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            Where did you read that?

            The spiciness of dishes both here and in Korea is regional and family specific in nature. On the average, you don't get super spicy without asking for it special in a restaurant around here.

            1. re: Jumbo_Jack

              I think I read that in Hisoo Shin Hepinstall's "Growing up in a Korean Kitchen," though it might have been in a Jonathan Gold article. The claim was that the chile products sold in American Korean grocery stores are milder than the ones sold in Korea.

              Korean Kitchen
              4185 Cushing Pkwy, Fremont, CA 94538

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                I had heard that and believed it until recently, when I grabbed a box of gochujang without checking the "fieriness scale" printed on the box. I used the same amount I always use in tofu stew and rendered the entire pot almost inedible.

                No lover of spicy foods I know--Korean, Mexican, Thai--has tasted the paste and not wondered what was wrong with it, it's that spicy. And yet it came in the same red flip top box all the other gochujang comes in.

                I can take a picture of the box if other 'hounds feel like they need to be packing their own chili paste at Bay Area Korean joints.

                1. re: Pei

                  i'd like to see a picture of that gochujang. the package i had before my current one was significantly hotter than most of the others. the one i have now is from pulmuone, and is moderately hot and sweet. the last one was a brand i've never used before, and when i did a spoon taste test i was surprised at the heat level. it also had unusual ingredients, like ground dried anchovies. the one i have now lists red pepper, what flour, soybean, salt, molasses.

      2. I almost always get spicy pork, and it's always about the same heat as at Ohgane. That covers about half a dozen bay area places, and causes me to believe that typical Korean food just doesn't use that much heat. Love to hear from those more knowledgeable.

        3915 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94611

        1. I've had the same experience as bbulkow, I've eaten at just about every Korean restaurant in Oakland and the capsaicin level is never as high as at some Thai and Indian places, and I don't think they make it less spicy for non-Koreans.

          I think the spiciest dish I've had at a Korean restaurant might be the zam pong at Chef Yu's, but again, it doesn't have the bite of a Thai-spicy papaya salad or a traditional vindaloo.

          I haven't tried Ohgane's yuk gae jang:


          3915 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94611

          Chef Yu's
          3919 Telegraph Ave, Oakland, CA 94609

          1. Bay Area Korean food doesn't tend to be as spicy as Thai or Indian food, but that's not the case in Los Angeles. I've had some dishes there that I thought would burn my stomach lining.

            But overall, I would say that Thai and Indian food in the Bay Area is better than in LA, whereas Korean food in LA is better than anything I've had up here. So maybe it's all related.

            1. That's a good point about different cities having different styles of Korean. I vaguely recall eating in Koreatown of West 32nd St in NY and experiencing more heat.

              1. Had one of the casseroles at Ohgane recently. The manager/staff asked if it was spicy enough, I said it could use some more and after she made some changes t o it -- it was SPICY

                3915 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94611

                1. The Soon Tofu soup at Pyung Chang Tofu Restaurant or Seoul Gom Tang if ordered hot is pretty picante in my experience.
                  Extra chili ordered in the Zucchini pancake can pack a punch at Sahn Maru.
                  I think that any Korean restaurant will up the ante if you ask.

                  Seoul Gom Tang
                  3028 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, CA 95051

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: chefj

                    Excellent point. I usually get the Kim Chee soup and it's super hot.

                    1. re: bbulkow

                      This soup is the hottest thing I've ever put in my mouth! But then, when I go to Korean restaurants, I'm usually with a group of my Korean students, so maybe that makes a difference in the heat level.

                    2. re: chefj

                      I've had the kimchi soon dobu at Pyung Change and it wasn't anywhere near Thai spicy.

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        Did you specify that you wanted it hot ?

                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          I always asked spicy and got it somewhere near thai hot. Maybe not quite all the way at thai. Very much sweat inducing.

                      2. john's snack and deli is supposed to make a pretty spicy kimchi burrito

                        1. So I'm getting the sense that Ohgane and the other Oakland Korean restos are typical in terms of levels of hot peppers used in the food prep. And it's not just for the non-Korean diners.

                          Looks like I'll be heading over to To Hyang to try it out soon.

                          3915 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94611

                          To Hyang
                          3815 Geary Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94118

                          1. spicy pork is not really a spicy dish unless you put in a lettuce wrap and take a slice of jalapeno and dip it in gochujang and have it that way. you just upped the spice factor there.

                            korean food can definitely be spicy and can be just as spicy as thai food but it all depends on the dish you order and then asking it to be made super spicy. i personally would never order a super spicy soup or stew because most of them you are supposed to enjoy the flavor of the broth. for super spicy korean dishes, i like bibim naem myunn, nakijibokum, and bo ssam.

                            4 Replies
                            1. re: lucymom

                              We regularly grow both habaneros and Thai chiles, though they probably lack the hotness they would possess in warmer climates than SF's; jalapenos seem to have had all the heat bred out of them--at least those I find at Rainbow; likewise serranos, though I bought some the other day that were reddening and actually did have a little heat.

                              Where do you find hot Thai food?

                              Perhaps we have differing definitions.

                              I've been eating Korean food since the '60s; I do believe it's not as hot as it used to be, except perhaps for some chiges (sp?)

                              We are of the opinion that so many Westerners have asked for their dishes hot at various ethnic places, then couldn't bear the heat, most such places have beocme persauded we can't tale it and resist all such requests.

                              1. re: Fine

                                of the restaurants mentioned in this thread, i've only been to ohgane. nothing i've had there was intensely spicy, and i can't think of any other bay area restaurant that is, but there are so many i've not dined at yet. but in general in this country the only dish that ever had me gasping and reaching for my beer is yukkaejang, or the spicy shredded beef soup. but again in korea, i may have had a built up tolerance which may have waned since.

                                also here i notice that aside from the traditional gochugaru pepper flakes and gochujang chile paste, the heat comes mainly from jalapenos, which seem to have been bred to be milder over the years. the chiles common in korea are much hotter in my memory. i also wonder if one can get acclimated to the spice level in a specific cuisine. my former brother in law, who is a mexican american, told me once in korea that he sometimes finds korean food to be overwhelmingly spicy, which shocked me, as i find that mexican food is much spicier. we were eating the same dish, but i didn't even break a sweat or pant.

                                i find that most korean restaurants here still cater to mostly korean clientele, and haven't created a hybrid cuisine to suit westerners, like many chinese or thai places. maybe its possible that korean americans themselves are not as taken with high spice levels as their cousins in korea.

                                1. re: augustiner

                                  Beer only intensifies the feeling of heat from chiles, as do other fluids, except dairy. The antidote is either a milk product or something like bread, tortilla, or plain rice.

                                  1. re: Fine

                                    ah, beer may not have the capsaicin dispelling properties of dairy but it has other benefits.

                            2. I used to work in a factory staffed almost entirely with Koreans. One day, there was a group lunch brought by various of their family members, which I was invited to participate in. I noticed most of them scarfing down some small red items with gusto, and was told that it was octopus tentacles (I think- long time back) and that they were too hot for Americans, so naturally I tried them. They were the hottest thing I ever ate, too hot for this American. The rest of the food varied quite a bit, mostly not particularly hot.