‘Living More Fulfilling Lives, Through Kimchi’

The Korean popular dish, “kimchi,” in the U.S. used to be considered an ethnic food of the Korean diaspora – mainly popular in the Korean immigrant community through Asian markets. It seems that the first batch of kimchi to formally make its way to American food stores was Sunja’s Kimchi, started in Vermont in 1993, as various Korean news outlets reported. But kimchi was still too new to the mainstream markets and was often overlooked until the early 2000s.

Today, however, kimchi is no longer an exotic dish, at least in New York City. Thanks to the city’s ethnic diversity and ever-evolving food obsession, the once-indigenous Korean dish has carved out a niche in the city’s big food markets, modern Korean restaurants – where it is often presented as “banchan” (side dishes in Korean) – and various flea markets. Kimchi seems on track to become the next popular fermented food, following pickles and sauerkraut.

Currently seven kimchi brands are locally produced and sold in New York: Chongga Kimchi, Mama O’s Premium Kimchi, Kyle’s Kimchi, Kimchi Kooks, Mrs Kim’s Kimchi, Matt’s Kimchi, and New York Kimchi. According to data from the NY State Department of State, fully 11 different brands of kimchi have been marketed since 1996. The brands currently available are relatively new, most having arrived in markets between 2007 and 2016, and the most recent addition was Mrs Kim’s Kimchi in 2016. New batches seem to keep cropping up at seasonal outdoor food markets.

Whole Foods Market currently carries seven kimchi brands in its northeastern region, which includes New York, northern and central New Jersey, and western and southern Connecticut. Four of the kimchi brands are locally produced in New York – Mama O’s and Kimchi Kooks of Brooklyn, Mrs Kim’s of the Bronx, and Hawthorne Valley of upstate New York – and the other three are from Vermont, Massachusetts, and California.

Kheedim Oh, founder of Mama O’s kimchi (Screen shot from video by Joeun Lee)

“Whole Foods Market has been carrying these lines since the early 2000s with a spike in new brands arriving around the early 2010s,” said John Lawson, the regional grocery buyer at Whole Foods Market. “Kimchi sales are growing strongly in the northeast region, and the region is also outgrowing kimchi sales nationally.”

It’s hard to tell which brand is outpacing the others in sales in this relatively small and new market, and sometimes it seems as though the competition has just started.

Mama O’s Kimchi Sees Void in Mainstream Markets

Mama O’s Kimchi was the first locally-made kimchi, started in 2009. Kheedim Oh, 42, founder of Mama O’s Kimchi, grew up in Maryland with traditional Korean immigrant parents. He worked as a DJ on the Lower East Side for nearly 15 years and, in fact, he never intended to start a business until 2007 when his Lower East Side butcher, Jeffrey Ruhalter, made the suggestion that he eat kimchi with his order of ribs.

“I said, ‘what do you know about kimchi?’ and he said ‘I love it,’ so I said ‘I make it’ because at that time I’d been learning how to make kimchi from my mom,” Oh said. He brought some kimchi to the butcher and told him: “You know I sell the stuff.” But, “I didn’t,” he said. The butcher told Oh that he wants to start carrying it, and that was when Oh decided to actually start making some and selling it.

Being a DJ wasn’t lucrative, and not much money was left in his bank account by the time he started the business. He had so little money that he had to squeeze into his friend’s restaurant kitchen in New Jersey to make the kimchi, then deliver it by subway and buses to a few Lower East Side stores. He had to decide whether to pursue the business in a bigger way, and he decided to go for it.

He sold his apartment to buy a deli in Ridgewood, Queens, and by retaining a small, 130-square-foot kitchen and gaining help from the deli workers to make the kimchi, this gave him time to grow his business. He was able to make more kimchi batches and focus more on advertising activities. After about a year of being in the deli, he started selling his brand at Whole Foods Market. He said: “That was a kind of big game changer, and since then it’s been growing.”

In 2013 after two years of being in the deli, he was able to move to his current location, the old Pfizer building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where hundreds of food start-ups have recently flocked. With five full-time and part-time workers now, the business has begun to take shape, selling nearly 4,000 jars of kimchi a month to 21 stores in the city, and nearly 50 locations nationwide.

Diversifying Ingredients

The new kimchi brands, mostly created by second-generation Korean Americans, tend to be artisanal and diet-minded kimchi, using a broader spectrum of ingredients beyond traditionally spicy, fermented napa cabbage.

Most kimchi batches in Asian markets come in a large size, weighing in at three to seven pounds, and they are either made from napa cabbage, daikon, or cucumber, and mass-produced by big food manufacturing companies based in Korea or California. But the newer brands are handmade in small batches of 10 to 16 ounces, and they use not only traditional ingredients but also various vegetables such as kale, bok choy, or beets. Also, there are no artificial seasonings like MSG, commonly used in mass-manufactured kimchi to boost flavor.

(Screen shot from video by Joeun Lee)

Mama O’s Kimchi makes six basic types of kimchi: napa cabbage, baby bok choy, green/red/purple/watermelon and daikon radish. Also available are white kimchi without red chili pepper, vegan varieties without fermented shrimp or fish sauce, and two grades of spiciness – super and mild. In addition to big markets such as Whole Foods and Fairway, small gourmet grocery stores carrying Mama O’s products include Zabar’s and Dean & DeLuca. It was also picked up by Murray’s Cheese shop in the West Village and Kalustyan’s, an Asian and Middle Eastern specialty food store in Manhattan, due to kimchi’s characteristics of fermentation and spiciness.

“We are not just targeting Koreans. We are targeting Americans, Americans of all kinds,” said Oh. He said that having a variety of ingredients makes sense because depending on one’s ethnicity and childhood experiences with foods, preferred ingredients are different, and that many Americans like daikon kimchi due to its fresh texture when chewing it.

The new artisanal kimchi are slightly more expensive (one or two more dollars) than traditional ones in Asian markets. The price per 16-ounce jar of artisanal kimchi ranges from $6.99 to $9.99, while in Asian markets, prices for mass-produced kimchi per 17-ounce jar (the smallest package) range from $6 to $8. Mama O’s Kimchi is a little bit more expensive; selling at $9.99 per 16-ounce jar at Whole Foods Market.

Oh said that using the Mama O’s recipes, which call for premium and natural ingredients, he has to factor in greater costs. “Also when we make Mama O’s Kimchi, we take extra care to make it consistently, so you know what you are going to get, not too fresh and sour enough. You know what’s going to be perfect for your meal. That’s how we make a little difference; to create kimchi that is at the perfect intersection of fresh and fermented,” he said.

Special Ingredients for the Best Taste and the Most Nutrition

The traditional ingredients that go into making kimchi include: napa cabbage, daikon radish, leek, red chili pepper, salt, garlic, ginger, sugar, rice starch, kelp-based sauce, fermented anchovy or shrimp sauce. All these ingredients make up the kimchi paste and depending on the vegetable ingredients, it can be napa cabbage kimchi, daikon kimchi, or cucumber kimchi, etc. The next steps follow: brine napa cabbage in salt water for more than six hours (pickling), wash it and mix it with the paste, then let it ferment.

Fermenting is the natural processing of letting the kimchi preserve itself through beneficial bacteria that digest the kimchi and change it on the molecular level. “It gets healthier as it preserves because it pre-digests itself through the fermentation process. Kimchi becomes healthier for you,” he added. Hence the description of the best kimchi as being “not too fresh.”

Since it is fermented, a jar of opened but unfinished kimchi can last for a number of years just like wine and cheese as long as it stays at a cool temperature below 10 degrees Fahrenheit. South Korea’s Ministry of Food and Drug Safety deems kimchi “unlikely to rot,” and there is no definite longevity of the product. But, the taste gets sourer with aging and it begins to lose lactic acid bacteria, also known as the good bacteria, over time after a certain period of time, depending on storage temperature and acid level.

(Screen shot from video by Joeun Lee)

Storing it at a consistent, cool temperature with the least exposure to oxygen is crucial to keeping the best kimchi for a long time. That’s why kimchi is traditionally and historically stored underground because of the steady, cool temperature. Many Koreans in urban areas now typically use a refrigerator specifically designed to store kimchi at a relatively low temperature. It is recommended that kimchi be stored between 32 degrees to 41 degrees Fahrenheit to keep its nutrition at the best level for up to 120 days, according to research by the World Institute of Kimchi in South Korea. Also, its nutrition level peaks when it stays at 39.2 degrees Fahrenheit for four weeks since it starts to mature.

For Mama O’s Kimchi, special ingredients include lime juice and cilantro. Oh said that lime juice is becoming more acceptable in the “kimchi-making community” and can be found as an ingredient in a kimchi cookbook. “Kimchi needs to have that acidity and that sourness to it, and lime juice gets it there quicker,” he said. Also, instead of using a typical Korean ingredient, minari (water dropwort), or Korean parsley, Oh uses cilantro. “This is actually Mama O, my mom’s idea to use it instead, because it has such a fresh, effervescence to it,” he said. “I tinker around with it a little bit, but for the most part, the original (recipe) is what it is.”

“To Eat More Like Korean People Do”

As his business has started to grow, Oh hopes to expand it in the future like many businesses do, but with a different mindset.

“Instead of just opening up one giant factory, I would rather create a lot of small factories initially around the U.S. and possibly in the world,” he said. “But, also, the unselfish, maybe the more altruistic purpose of what I’m trying to do is to influence people to eat more like Korean people do, which is less meat-centric, where meat is more of the accompaniment. You want to have steak, with potatoes, green beans, rice and kimchi. So that way you eat healthier and more deliciously.”

“That’s what I’m trying to do, changing the American diet or educating people on how to live healthier, more fulfilling lives through kimchi,” he added.

Joeun Lee is a business reporter for Korea Daily. This article and the accompanying video were produced as part of the 2016 Business Reporting Fellowship of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media and funded by a grant from News Corp. 

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