I have been eating kimchi all my life. But I only truly smelled it about three years ago, when I was making kimchi alone for the first time. The vivid aromas suddenly brought me back to my childhood in Seoul, to my maternal grandmother and my earliest memories of food. I must have been about five years old, walking through the woods with my grandmother foraging for wild plants that would turn up at the dinner table; smelling the enticingly intense aroma of freshly roasted soybeans, used for making a fermented soybean paste called doenjang; tasting the warmth of a freshly laid egg; and watching a chicken from our backyard being butchered. Although we had moderate means, the act of preparing food formed a large part of my childhood, and especially of what gave me comfort. There was a sense of excitement watching my grandmother or mother in the kitchen preparing the food that would play a central role in bringing together the entire family at mealtime.
I also remember watching my grandmother make kimchi with the neighborhood ajumas (a respectful term for maternal figures, like madam or ma’am) during kimjang, the annual fall cabbage harvest, when I was six years old. From time to time, I’d run up to my grandmother, and she’d give me small pieces of the inner cabbage leaf with the rolled-up stuffing in them. It was always so special to me—a bond of love between us and a preview of the kimchi we would be eating all winter.
Suddenly it all made sense—why I was so curiously drawn to food and wine, my secret fascination when the deep smell of an aged red wine elicited a faint memory of roasted soybeans, the familiar intense meaty aroma of a properly made veal stock, the musky smell of wine cellars or ripe cheese that made me recall the comforting memories of my childhood in Seoul, Korea. I had come full circle from my Korean roots, through Western traditions, culminating in rediscovering kimchi.
In Korea, kimchi is eaten with every meal. I was about eight years old when my family came to the United States, and, like many immigrant families, we spent a lot of time shopping for food and preparing what was going to be served on the table. There were always two shopping trips: I recall spending entire weekends shopping for Korean ingredients at specialty shops and then visiting typical American grocery stores. Our family dinners showcased my mother’s innate ability to create endless delicious meals out of what we bought. While I was adapting to American culture, I was often embarrassed about how pungent Korean food is compared to American food, and I found myself ashamed and reluctant to share Korean traditions. Food was very important to us, and yet Korean food was so different, especially kimchi, so foreign, spicy, and stinky that it seemed as if it had no place in the American kitchen. I couldn’t see a bridge between the two cultures.
My mother often cautioned me that kimchi was the one Korean tradition that would offend people because it is so pungent, and she warned me never to share kimchi with anyone who wasn’t Korean. She told me kimchi was particularly not something I should eat in front of others, let alone take it for lunch to eat in public, and that I should always be mindful about kimchi’s malodorous characteristics.
While growing up in Southern California, I often found myself straddling the two worlds—Korean and American—and trying to reconcile the food, culture, and language between the two seemingly contradictory cultures. The Korean world was a familiar one, while the American one seemed imposing and intimidating. In trying to understand where I fit between the two worlds, I struggled to find my voice.
My food journey was not a straight path. I attended college and, after graduation, chose not to pursue law school and instead dutifully found desk jobs. But I felt connected to my most authentic self when I was traveling abroad and discovering food. On a three-month backpacking trip through Europe, I was introduced to the food and wine cultures of Italy and France, which changed me forever. I was strangely comforted upon arriving at each new town, perusing the open-air food markets or grocery stores, discovering new cuisines, and tasting the local specialties. I realized that these seemingly foreign places were similarly deeply entrenched in culinary traditions similar to my Korean culture.
These pivotal experiences inspired me to launch a career in food and wine that included working as an assistant manager of an upscale French restaurant, organizing editorial tastings at a national wine magazine, managing a wine portfolio, and picking grapes for wine at a harvest in Italy. There were many times when I doubted my decision—I thought that kimchi and the pungent flavors of Korean food might have ruined my palate and spoiled my sense of smell, that it may have interfered with my ability to taste subtle flavors and appreciate the aroma of a fine vintage wine. I never imagined there could be common ground between kimchi and my love of the European food traditions that I held in such high regard, until that singular moment when I truly smelled kimchi for the first time. The bridge I had been looking for my entire life had been right under my nose all along.
My mother has operated Jang Mo Jip (“Mother-in-Law’s House”) restaurant in Garden Grove, California, since 1989. The restaurant business was not a planned career, but rather the result of dire necessity that grew out of a sad family event—the untimely passing of my father. My mother didn’t have much time to grieve; she had a family to support. And thus the restaurant was born.
I’ve always been inspired by my mother’s entrepreneurial success, but I didn’t plan to follow in her footsteps by opening a Korean restaurant. And yet, at the restaurant, there was always a sense of comfort in a bowl of seollungtang soup—the house specialty beef brisket and bone mixture simmered in a cauldron overnight, a time-honored tradition of extracting the essence of the stock—and a side dish of kimchi. Traditionally this soup is particularly prized as a breakfast meal, although it is also eaten throughout the day. The regulars, old neighborhood men, line up at 7 a.m. to be served the first bowl of piping hot, milky soup from the cauldron. I love seeing the many familiar faces of ajumas, who cook and operate the restaurant with the same care as if they were feeding their own families. The extended families with multiple generations that still visit our restaurant make an impression on me, especially when I see my mother greet each familiar face with a warm welcome. For 23 years, I had grown up eating kimchi from my mother’s restaurant, and each time I went home to visit, she would send me back to New York with delicious kimchi carefully packed to take home in my luggage.
Then, in 2008, during the financial downturn, I suddenly lost one of my routine desk jobs and was facing unemployment. Instead of plunging headfirst into a job search, I felt as if I were at a crossroads—something had to change. During this time, I visited a dear friend in Barcelona. The trip rekindled my love for the flavors of traditional foods and the Spanish idea of tapas, or appetizers, and eating little bites of foods infused with a perfect assortment of flavor combinations and textures. The flavor combinations of briny seafood, rich meatiness, fresh vegetables—their tangy and savory mixture—made me recall the complexity of flavors in Korean cuisine. Suddenly a lightbulb turned on in my head. For the very first time, I started to really understand kimchi and see its similarities, rather than what had seemed like their stark differences, to the wine- and cheese-making traditions I was so passionate about. I wanted to share this newfound insight about the craft of kimchi and its connection to other Western food traditions with the world in a way that hadn’t been done before. I wanted to help people understand the the labor, the time-honored methods, and the process of natural fermentation that make kimchi such a unique, healthful, compelling, and complex food. And with that, in the fall of 2009, I launched my small-batch kimchi business, Mother-in-Law’s Kimchi (MILKimchi).
Named after my mother’s restaurant and using the original kimchi recipe that was developed by the ajumas, Mother-in-Law’s Kimchi is an homage both to my roots and to the authenticity that is found in every culinary tradition. There are, I realized, more similarities than differences among these traditions. They’re embedded in the foods that nurture us.
When I began making kimchi, I didn’t understand its complexities or the common thread between kimchi and other fermented foods such as wine, cheese, beer, and bread. But along the way, I was welcomed by many who understood fermentation’s unique results and its health benefits. Selling kimchi at the New Amsterdam Market in New York City, a market that celebrates regional foods, gave me the opportunity and vision to create seasonal varieties of kimchi and introduce it in a truly authentic way. Having grown up in Southern California, it was easy to lose sight of the seasons as good produce was readily available year-round. But the northeastern climate reminded me of the seasonal history of kimchi. There were tender napa cabbage, green onions, young radishes, stuffed cucumbers, and water kimchi (similar to gazpacho) in the spring and summer, while whole pieces of vegetables such as stuffed napa cabbage and bachelor radish kimchi were available during the fall and winter. I didn’t know how these flavors would be received, but I wanted to help people understand kimchi—that it is more than just napa cabbage and that there is a profound seasonal aspect to it. I wanted to help people who were not brought up on kimchi to develop a taste for its unique flavors and to appreciate its raw, probiotic benefits and the versatile ways that it could be used in cooking.
It’s hard to imagine that I am writing a cookbook, hoping to bring the tradition of kimchi to a much wider audience. Now MILKimchi is a growing business, selling kimchi in specialty markets across the country. It’s amazing to reflect on my journey as I think about my mother’s admonition that kimchi was the one food that I should not share with anyone who wasn’t Korean. Look, Mom, I am sharing kimchi with the world and now everyone is listening! I hope that this book will guide you with an overview of the versatility of kimchi and inspire you to create your own favorite recipe.
Green Onion Kimchi
Paa Kimchi (Traditional)
Green onions can be found everywhere—from farmers’ markets to grocery stores. Try to buy early spring green onions from a farmer—young onions have a slightly curved, more bulbous head; long, beautiful green stems; and a brighter, more tender flavor than supermarket green onions. Garlic scapes could also work well as an alternative. Traditionally, green onions are kept intact for this kimchi.
This kimchi has a strong green onion flavor but imparts a spicy, tanginess as it ages—it is mostly used as a condiment. A little goes a long way, as the spicy green onion flavor adds an unexpected touch to dishes. Try Green Onion Kimchi as an ingredient in savory Kimchi Cornmeal Pancakes and Kimchi Frittata with Green Onions and Shiitakes.
› Prep: 40 minutes › Brine: 20 minutes › Fermentation: Ready to eat or overnight, depending on your preference › Makes 3 cups (8 to 12 servings)
1/2 pound green onions, spring onions, or garlic scapes
1/2 tablespoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons Korean chile pepper flakes
1/2 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon anchovy sauce
In a large bowl, combine the onions with the salt and let sit at room temperature for 20 minutes. Drain and discard the liquid.
In another large bowl, stir together the chile pepper flakes, sugar, and anchovy sauce.
Add the brined onions to the pepper-flake mixture and combine well. Let the onions marinate, uncovered, for 20 minutes before serving. Or let them marinate overnight, covered, at room temperature for more pungent flavors.
Refrigerate and consume within 1 month. Notice the changes in taste as the flavors develop further into tangy notes.