Restoring her kimchi connection

CNN
Tuesday, August 12, 2014 - 8:47pm

For Hannah Chung, at least one element of her parents' culture was something of an acquired taste.

Kimchi -- a pungent blend of fermented vegetables and spices -- is a staple of the Korean table, and is typically offered amid a series of banchan, or free side dishes that are meant to accompany and complement the main dish.

But for Chung, it was a dish that made her feel removed from the dominant culture, not included.

"I actually rebelled against my parents by refusing to eat kimchi sometimes, and I've actually found out that that's a super common experience among second-generation Koreans," she says.

"I got made fun of for all the foods I ate," Chung, a second-generation Korean-American, recalls. "I didn't want to invite my friends over to my house because my house smelled like kimchi and Korean food, and it was really embarrassing for me."

After her grandmother, the family kimchi maker, passed away, Chung found she longed for the taste she once so adamantly rejected in her youth.

So Chung decided to start making her own version, and relied on her experience of working in several top Atlanta restaurants to find the right formula.

Now, Chung considers herself a "kimchi missionary" and has turned her craving into a full-fledged commercial operation called Simply Seoul Kitchen.

Cabbage is the most widely used kimchi vegetable, but as the popularity of fermentation and Korean food grows in the U.S., makers are experimenting with other leafy vegetables like collard greens as well as Daikon radishes and Brussels sprouts.

Commercial production has not always gone perfectly for Chung, who once during the development phase had to throw away about 50 jars because she'd gotten the salt measurements wrong. But now that she's mastered the making (and offers varieties including white Napa, cabbage, cucumber, radish and more) she still has one hurdle to clear.

"Kimchi has a bad rap out there," she says. "People have tried kimchi for the first time at Korean restaurants where they cut costs. They don't have the time to dedicate to make real kimchi -- and it's pretty untasty."

Because of the difficulty involved in producing a high-quality product, she saw the perfect opportunity to fill that niche and offer people a perception-altering taste of a misunderstood dish.

From there, it's all about letting the average consumer know what Koreans have known for centuries: Nothing else packs the same combination of sour, spice, texture and funk in one package.

The author offers these tips for the optimal kimchi experience:

-- Open jars over or near a sink. The contents are under pressure from gas created by fermentation and can rise out of the jar after it's open. -- Many kimchi enthusiasts opt to keep a second refrigerator in the garage for kimchi storage, so the funky smells are kept away from the other food and living areas. -- Kimchi sold in stores may be as fresh as a week-and-a-half old, but the flavors will continue to develop in the jar. Chung says the flavors of kimchi deepen even more after six months or so. -- Kimchi most often accompanies Korean food, but also goes well with burgers, tacos, hot dogs or even on eggs for breakfast.

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