From Kimchi to Infinity

The spicy fermented cabbage prepares for its moment in the spotlight.

May 15, 2012

Photographer Andria Lo. Illustrator Sophia Chang.

Onilne exclusive: read a review of PBS’s Kimchi Chronicles by American-born kimchi maker Kheedim Oh.

It all started with the kimchi dispute of 1996. Distressed by the increasing popularity of Japanese-made kimchi, the Korean government launched a protectionist campaign to create an international standard for authentic kimchi. Since then, South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak has waged an international campaign of “gastrodiplomacy,” with the aim of propelling Korean cuisine to epicurean heights around the world.

The prized tool in his administration’s effort to globalize Korean food is kimchi, that spicy, sour and crunchy fermented cabbage that is a staple of the Korean diet but has yet to reach international ubiquity. Lee hopes that love of kimchi will lead to a love of all Korean food and has declared a mission to quadruple the number of Korean restaurants abroad and increase food exports, from $4.4 billion in 2009 to $10 billion by 2012.

European haute cuisine was the first site of the kimchi invasion. In an effort to rebrand Korean food as sophisticated and vibrant, the Korean government’s food ministry and national tourism organization partnered with the Seoul outpost of the legendary French culinary school Le Cordon Bleu in 2004 to publish a cookbook of Korean- French fusion dishes, featuring dishes like Camembert kimchi fritters and light kimchi-infused pastry cream mille-feuille.

Chefs in Korea were repulsed. As Remo Berdux, head of the Les Toques Blanches Korea, an association for food and hospitality professionals, said, “If I had a wheel of gorgeous Camembert and a jar of delicious kimchi, why would I even think to wrap one with the other in the first place, but then to put it in a deep fryer. You are just ruining two wonderful products.”

Undeterred, the Korean government has set its sights even beyond this planet. In 2008, kimchi was launched into space along with the first Korean astronaut. (She took space-friendly kimchi, which was engineered to maintain its look and flavor upon exposure to radiation and to be less pungent to avoid offending fellow astronauts.)

Back on Earth, the Korean government has been researching ways to systematize and regulate recipes, spice levels and quality standards to help guide consumers and appeal to a wider audience. A gradient system is in the works to categorize the level of kimchi spiciness based a five-level scale measuring Gochujang (red pepper paste) Hot Taste Units, or GHU.

South Korea’s first lady Kim Yoon-Ok has had a heavy hand in the campaign to make Korean food palatable to foreigners. In 2011, Kim was granted $4.5 million USD by the Korean government to open a flagship restaurant in the middle of Manhattan, NY ’s already booming Koreatown. However, political opposition in Korea to the high-priced project has stalled its execution.

Kimchi may yet succeed in infiltrating international markets, but it looks to be through routes other than Camembert and outer space. The most effective gastrodiplomats so far are enterprising Korean Americans who believe the answer lays in local ingredients, small or homemade batches and fusion with favorite American dishes. They advocate for flavorful, robust kimchi, instead of a bland homogenization of Korean cuisine. They may just be the key to helping the dish overcome its historical and cultural baggage and be reinvented as a global food.

Versatile Vegetables

According to displays at the Pulmuone Kimchi museum in Seoul, kimchi was first mentioned in the historical Chinese novel The Romance of the Three Kingdoms in the third century. Back then and for centuries later, kimchi didn’t have the peppery, briny flavor that it has today: It was a salted vegetable dish to be consumed during the winter months, and it was neither fermented nor spicy. Korean cuisine was transformed when Japanese first introduced chili peppers to Korea in the late 16th century during the Columbian Exchange, a massive global transfer of Old and new World animals and plants. now, chili peppers are ubiquitous in Korean cuisine and give some types of kimchi a distinctive red color. Kimchi, that most Korean of dishes, actually owes a debt to prehistoric Native Americans. 

The word kimchi means “pickled vegetables,” and there are more than 200 types that reflect harvest seasons and regional flair, with the most common one made with napa cabbage. It is a versatile, simple side dish easily integrated into soups, stews, braises, sautés, barbecues, savory pancakes, rice and noodles. Other popular kinds of kimchi are made with ponytail radish, daikon, cucumber or scallions. 

To make cabbage kimchi, napa cabbages are quartered, then brined with rock salt at room temperature for about five hours. next, each cabbage leaf is layered with a mixture of shredded radish, garlic, ginger, fermented shrimp paste, red pepper powder and scallions. It starts off bitter, sweet, salty and crunchy, and as it ferments, it becomes bubbly, sour, spicy, fishy and tender. The fermentation process, which traditionally occurred in a jar buried in the ground, allows these tastes to mingle and evolve, constantly changing the flavor and texture. 

But Koreans’ affinity for kimchi goes deeper than just a tasty pile of cabbage. Kimchi-making is traditionally a woman’s job in Korea, where recipes are passed down from generations. most people have fierce pride in their mother’s kimchi: It is intimately connected to the maker as she handcrafts batches, and it is thought that her hands help impart that perfect taste. In describing flavors of kimchi, many talk about son mat, literally translated as “the taste of hands.” I vividly remember my mother soaking her hands — flushed and swollen from touching the salt and chilies — in a milk bath after spending an entire day making kimchi during the fall kimjang season, when kimchi is made for the winter months. I came to believe that a combination of the cold weather, my grandmother’s chilly kitchen, the heat of the chili, the sting of the garlic and the brininess of the salt penetrated my mother’s hands and released her son mat into the kimchi.

An ‘Objectionable Odour’

So how can non-Koreans come to appreciate this nuanced food without the emotional bonds that the Korean people have to it? Newcomers to kimchi may be turned off by the word “fermented,” conjuring up images of bubbling microorganisms, even though cheese and beer are the result of the same biological process. For a generation raised to spray disinfectant shields around themselves, the prospect of putting a forkful of bacteria into their mouths is highly uncomfortable.

Kimchi has always had a difficult relationship with non-Koreans. Early travelers to Korea during the Enlightenment were appalled by the reek of the garlicky fermented vegetable. Its bouquet of garlic, fish or shrimp and chilies was a deterrent for most Westerners, except one: Horace N. Allen, a medical missionary to Korea, boasted in his 1908 memoir, “I seem to have been one of the few foreigners who took to this article of food and I always had it put down [stored underground for the fermentation process] for winter consumption minus the garlic, which deprived it of its objectionable odour.” He was also haunted by the memory of a grateful patient who left him a jar of ripe kimchi that gave off such a stench that he ordered his servants to throw it out. Allen compared the smell to that exuded by sick people neglected for days.

Foreigners’ aversion to kimchi became a source of self-consciousness and even embarrassment for many Koreans. As recently as the 1980s, Korean laborers laying roads and waterways in the Middle East brought kimchi with them, but their non-Korean colleagues were put off by the scent and pejoratively referred to the Koreans as “garlic eaters.”

Can the stink (olfactory or psychological) be removed from kimchi? Kheedim Oh, a Korean American kimchi maker, thinks not, and he prefers to tout the food’s healthful bona fides to kimchi newcomers. Oh said jokingly that when he meets people who are turned off by the smell, “the first thing I call them is a racist, and once I get that out of the way, I tell them about its health benefits.”

Kimchi has high levels of vitamins A, B and C and is loaded with lactobacilli, the friendly bacteria that keeps the digestive tract healthy. High levels of sodium and spices aside, research has shown that eating kimchi can boost immunity to illness, and some claim it can combat cancer and even the SARS virus. (Korea had only a handful of SARS cases and no reported fatalities, despite its proximity to China, where the virus originated — some in Korea credit kimchi.) Oh might be onto something: Studies have shown that explaining health benefits of a readily available food item will increase one’s willingness to try it and like it.

Let Them Eat Kimchi

Kimchi is deeply ingrained in the Korean diet and eaten at almost every meal. And even more of it is being eaten: Data from the Korean Rural Economic Institute reveal that per capita consumption in Korea has increased from 19.5 kilograms in 2005 to 22.3 kilograms in 2009. As for kimchi habits worldwide, the Korea Agro-Fisheries Trade Corporation reports that in 2007 (the most recent year studied), 15,907 tons of kimchi, worth over $105 million, was consumed in the United States. Ninety-five percent of the US market is dominated by local brands owned or produced by Korean supermarkets or restaurants, with the remaining 5 percent imported directly from Korea.

I have dined with some who carefully lay a piece of kimchi over a heap of Chinese black bean noodles to neatly package a mouthful and others who wash it down with birthday cake. A former co-worker would heap spoonfuls of kimchi with cream-based pasta, creating pink swirls with red chili freckles on his plate. “This is the secret to really enjoying seu-pa-ge-ti — this way it’s not greasy at all!” Seeing my hesitation, he shook his head and said: “You don’t know what you’re missing. This is the way real Koreans eat!”

This is a common refrain: An indicator of authentic Koreanness is whether one can stomach the fiery, sour and garlicky qualities of kimchi. Many Koreans interpret the ability to eat kimchi to be genetically coded rather than acquired, and it is common to hear people in Korea complain of feeling empty or uneasy if they forgo their daily fix. The Korean self-identification with kimchi is a double-edged sword: Criticism of kimchi’s smell can be seen as a personal attack and for some Koreans, a source of shame and self-doubt.

So what does this mean for efforts to broaden kimchi’s appeal outside of the Korean community? Must the fiery kimchi taste be diluted to be suitable for non-Korean palates? Is a bland homogenization of Korean cuisine the answer to wider consumption outside Korea?

Lucia Cho, director of the Korean ceramics company and restaurant group Kwangjuyo, argues no. “Every culture has their own kimchi,” Cho said. “They might call it by a different name but the concept of pickling vegetables is universal. We need to get others to get used to our version.” She maintains that the unique taste of kimchi comes from the combination of heat and fermented seafood paste and believes that once non-Koreans become familiar with the robust flavors of authentic kimchi, they will demand it.

There are three broad types of kimchi sold for household consumption in the United States. The first is predominantly for the approximately 1.4 million Americans of Korean descent and made by local Korean restaurants (for example, Kum Gang San restaurant in New York City) or Korean grocery stores like the national chain H Mart. The second is geared toward the general public (King’s Kimchi and Sunja’s) and health conscious customers (Rejuvenative Foods). The third and most recent development is the introduction of artisanal Korean American brands (Mother-In-Law’s Kimchi, Granny Choe’s Kimchi and Mama O’s Kimchi), who focus on niche markets like farmers markets, specialty food stores and online. Like Cho, these brands have realized that the key to more mainstream appeal is to adapt kimchi to the local culinary culture: They serve spicy, full-flavored kimchi yet market it as an ideal addition to multicultural American menus, with recipes such as ceviche, salsa, grilled cheese, stuffing and chili.

Of course, they’re not the first to fuse kimchi with America’s favorite dishes: In late 2008, Roy Choi founded Kogi, a food truck serving Korean-Mexican fare to the masses in Los Angeles. His signature dishes included short rib tacos with kimchi slaw and a kimchi quesadilla, which created an instant cult following.

Perfect Interracial Food Babies

Born and raised in suburban Maryland, Mama O’s Kimchi founder Oh was a skateboarder, then DJ before finding his calling in kimchi. Annoyed by the mass-produced kimchi he found too sweet, flavorless or MSG-soaked, he used his mother’s recipe to begin making kimchi for himself. Chief Minister of Kimchi is his official title, and he infuses Mama O’s (“the champagne of all pickles”) with his humorous and relaxed style. He continues to DJ and produce music while building the Mama O’s brand out of his corner deli in Queens, NY. 

Oh’s boutique brand straddles the market between homemade small-scale and commercial producers. Yes, the prices are higher: A 16-ounce jar of Mama O’s sells for $9.99 at New York specialty food stores, whereas a similar-size packet of imported Jong Ga Jip kimchi, a popular brand in Korea, is usually sold for $5.99 in Korean groceries around New York City. But, still at a relatively low volume of production, Mama O’s reported about $20,000 in revenues in 2010.

For Oh, the golden standard for delicious kimchi is one that is sour, spicy, fresh and appealing to the eye. As Mama O’s grew in popularity, he grudgingly launched a vegan variation. Although adamant about the importance of fermented fish sauce in his original recipe, he said, “Just because they are vegan doesn’t mean that they deserve to eat bad kimchi.”

He continues exploring ways to incorporate kimchi into the American diet through fusion dishes like kimchili, kimchi salsa and kimchikraut. In 2011, he organized Kimchipalooza at a cooking and eating event called Cookout NYC, where he debuted kimchi ephemera like a mango-daikon-radish popsicle. He calls these “my perfect interracial food babies” and hopes that other Americans will start making their own versions.

But his eyes are set beyond America’s shores: His ultimate goal is to export his kimchi to Korea and cultivate a following there. This is the inverse of the Korean government’s gastrodiplomacy campaign — instead of Korea bringing kimchi to the world, he wants to bring a globalized kimchi to Korea.

This points to a fundamental flaw in the Korean government’s mission to globalize Korean cuisine. Lauryn Chun, the owner of Mother-In-Law’s Kimchi in New York City, noted that the Korean government’s shortcoming has been “not identifying local preferences and cultural nuances and tailoring kimchi accordingly.” Chun adds that she has hosted successful kimchi and wine pairing events. “Most people want to try out new and fun foods in familiar settings.”

For Korean food to be effectively globalized, then, perhaps the answer is not a government-sponsored blitz campaign involving astronauts and expensive retail locations, but rather, multiple small hands working together to pickle locally appropriate kimchi, infused with some good ole American son mat.


Chi-Hoon Kim is a doctoral student in anthropology of food at Indiana University. 


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