Dinner

The Secret Korean Ingredient That Makes My Sunday Sauce Sing

Weekend cooking's new best friend.

by:
May 14, 2019
Photo by Ty Mecham; Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog

The true, unspoken reason that I love to cook? I aspire to someday be one of those grandmothers who lavishes a house chock-full of hungry family and friends with transcendent meals every week. I’m talking about the type of grandma who will toil for hours and hours over a single, specific meal that is purely her own. That meal you know you could never recreate, because only Grandma Irene makes it that way, because only Grandma Irene has a pantry filled with that secret spice (love).

Everything from now until then is just a practice run. And the signature meal I’m practicing for the day I become that future Grandma Irene is Sunday sauce.

My first encounter with Sunday sauce was shortly after my move to Williamsburg, which coincided with the opening of Smorgasburg in East River State Park. Many of my summer weekend mornings were spent trekking over to the riverfront to hunt and gather lunch for myself. While today the lunch options are seemingly limitless, back then there was a smaller selection of early adopters. Among these vendors was Sunday Gravy, with their unassuming red tent and the one guy serving his grandmother’s Sunday sauce. All he had with him was a large Dutch oven, sauce simmering away, and a pot of boiling water in which he would quickly warm up the pasta.

And wow. Sunday Gravy’s eponymous dish took me on a nostalgic journey through a life I’d never lived. Instead, I grew up with Korean grandmothers who loved me, sure, and filled me to the brim with bowls and bowls of white rice and spicy stews and all of the homemade kimchi in the world. But this red sauce was otherworldly. I pictured this man’s Italian grandma simmering away tomatoes and various meats all day long. It was so much more than a tomato sauce; think large pieces of Italian sausage, broken meatballs, and chunks of pork clinging to each other through a sea of simmered tomatoes rich in meaty goodness, bound together by time and heat and, of course, cheese.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I recently made Cook's Illustrated Bulgogi and the chile Sauce (Ssamjang) used both gochujang (an ingredient in my refrig for a while) and doenjang. No problem finding it, but I found the sauce to be incredibly salty. Any suggestions for keeping the flavor profile in line but reducing the saltiness? My gochujang indicates that it's lower in sodium but didn't find a doenjang that was and there is no other salt containing element in the sauce.”
— MBE
Comment

The Sunday Gravy guy became a weekly pilgrimage for me, as I braved sweltering humidity and the occasional rainy day to experience this sauce, no matter how little cash I had in my pocket. I kept going back to try and uncover its secrets through each bite, working to embed the taste in my memory.

I grew up with Korean grandmothers who loved me, sure, and filled me to the brim with bowls and bowls of white rice and spicy stews and all of the homemade kimchi in the world. But this red sauce was otherworldly.

He’s not there anymore, of course. But over the years I’ve been able to slowly reverse-engineer this elusive Sunday gravy sauce to create my own take on it: The key, really, is a ton of meat and lots of time spent cooking each individual ingredient. For this it’s the perfect Sunday pantry recipe: You poke around the fridge to see what you can find, add a little bit of this or a pinch of that, and an occasional surprising substitute.

Which is what led me to replace the most Italian of ingredients with the most Korean.

One weekend, I was already sweating onions and garlic when I reached into the fridge for my trusty tube of tomato paste—only to realize it was gone, likely used up in my last batch of Sunday sauce. In a panic, I racked my brain and the back of the fridge before landing on a bright red tub of gochujang.

Gochujang has been a fridge staple for me since I graduated college. I reach for it to make kimchi stews, pork marinades, and spicy tteokbokki. It made perfect sense as a tomato paste substitute: While it is made of concentrated red peppers versus tomatoes, gochujang is also fermented, giving dishes even more umami flavor and deepness. Plus, it helps to thicken the sauce and adds a subtle kick of heat as well as sweetness, just enough to keep you going back for more. But the best added bonus was that it knocked several hours off my cooking time, which is great because I don’t yet have that time to spare in my day-to-day.

I still have a few more decades to go before I gain full-fledged Grandma Irene status, which should give me plenty more opportunities to keep finessing my Sunday gravy and my cheek-pinching. In the meantime, see below for my Sunday sauce recipe as it stands today—or you’re welcome to come over so I can ply you with bite after bite, until you couldn’t possibly eat another.

What's the secret ingredient in YOUR Sunday sauce? Tell us in the comments below.

Tags:

Join the Conversation

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • MBE
    MBE
  • Zozo
    Zozo
  • Regine
    Regine
  • HalfPint
    HalfPint
  • Irene Yoo
    Irene Yoo
Comment
Irene runs a monthly Brooklyn-based pop-up series called Yooeating, with new takes on Korean home cooking, street food, and drinking culture by pairing with other culinary cuisines that feel like home.

6 Comments

MBE May 16, 2019
I recently made Cook's Illustrated Bulgogi and the chile Sauce (Ssamjang) used both gochujang (an ingredient in my refrig for a while) and doenjang. No problem finding it, but I found the sauce to be incredibly salty. Any suggestions for keeping the flavor profile in line but reducing the saltiness? My gochujang indicates that it's lower in sodium but didn't find a doenjang that was and there is no other salt containing element in the sauce.
 
Author Comment
Irene Y. May 16, 2019
To be honest, bulgogi doesn't really need ssamjang, since it's an already-marinated meat with plenty of seasoning. In Korean BBQ, I would reserve ssamjang for fatty un-marinated meats like pork belly and use sparingly (like, a pea-sized amount per bite). The bulgogi is fine on its own or with kimchi / pickles!
 
Zozo May 15, 2019
I really need to get my hands on some gochujang! My secret in many sauces, Sunday or otherwise, is kimchi juice, and or toum. Both add a nice tang and depth.
 
Regine May 14, 2019
My secret or not so secret addition is herring or anchovy paste. I also like to add a lot of smoked sweet paprika.
 
HalfPint May 14, 2019
Certain family members have been known to use fish sauce in their Sunday gravy ;)
 
Eric K. May 14, 2019
Dang, that sounds good.