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Monday, April 15, 2024

Kimchi isn’t just for cabbage lovers: New varieties are stealing the spotlight

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Basil kimchi [ON 6.5]
Basil kimchi [ON 6.5]

Fresh basil leaves, tangerines and cured olives are some of the up-and-coming new kimchi varieties in Korea that aren’t just part of the TikTok hype.

They may sound bizarre even to locals, but these atypical variations are what is keeping kimchi in some people’s diets, and, according to experts, is a way to take the country’s most iconic dish to the next level, globally.

At the center of the renewed kimchi buzz is comedian Lee Young-ja’s basil kimchi. Nicknamed “the professor of eating,” she was featured two weeks ago on the MBC reality show “Omniscient Interfering View,” whipping up a plateful of aromatic kimchi with three less-than-helpful celebrity aides.

The four soon take a mouthful of the black-bean noodle ramen Chapagetti topped with some basil kimchi, and that is all that it takes for them to start showering Lee’s concoction with enthusiastic praise.

“It tastes almost… multinational,” says actor Kwon Yul.

“This really tops everything!” says comedian Jun Hyun-moo.

Basil kimchi and Chappagetti (black bean ramenn) [SCREEN CAPTURE]
Basil kimchi and Chappagetti (black bean ramenn) [SCREEN CAPTURE]

The scene piqued the interest of some viewers, pushing them to take a jab at the recipe themselves. Some 100 reviews popped up on the local search engine Naver in the last month.

“What’s great about basil kimchi is that it is easy to make with an ingredient that appeals to more people today,” said chef and kimchi expert, Lee Seung-mi. She explained that not all Koreans necessarily love kimchi nor do they all eat it every day, and many don’t do kimjang (kimchi making), so a year’s worth of kimchi isn’t stocked in everyone’s fridge anymore,

The average daily kimchi intake of Koreans has decreased by nearly 20 percent in a span of 10 years, from 110 grams (0.2 pounds) in 2010 to 88 grams in 2020, according to last year’s report by The World Institute of Kimchi.

Lee is also the original owner of the comedian’s hit basil kimchi recipe. Lee Young-ja had come to the restaurant at which Lee Seung-mi is the sous-chef, and, after tasting the basil kimchi, had asked her for the recipe. Chef Lee is in charge of kimchi at the world’s first kimchi wine bar, On 6.5, which opened last year in Jongno District, central Seoul.

“A tip that I have for those making basil kimchi at home is to give it some time to ferment,” said Lee. “The taste of the basil slightly weakens and you can taste that iconic tanginess that all good kimchi has.”

On 6.5’s signature kimchi plate (9,000 won or $7) includes Lee’s basil kimchi, asparagus dongchimi (radish water kimchi) and shallot jang kimchi (kimchi made with soy sauce). In fact, the entire offering incorporates kimchi, such as fried kimchi (17,000 won), dongchimi cheese (14,000 won) and cabbage wrap (19,000 won).

Cabbage Wrap at On 6.5 in Jongno District, central Seoul, is one of the restaurant's representative dishes that includes ground pork, gochujang kimchi and jang kimchi (soy sauce kimchi) inside a large cabbage wrap. [ON 6.5]
Cabbage Wrap at On 6.5 in Jongno District, central Seoul, is one of the restaurant’s representative dishes that includes ground pork, gochujang kimchi and jang kimchi (soy sauce kimchi) inside a large cabbage wrap. [ON 6.5]

Lee’s initial inspiration for creative kimchi types came from her mother who married into a jonggatjip, meaning the family of the eldest son. Their family tree, large and highly traditional, is said to have elaborate, and often secret, family recipes that have been passed down to the wives of the eldest sons for generations.

“My mother was always cooking for people, and I loved watching her,” she said. “She had a bit of spunk in her dishes. She even made kimchi with chwinamul [seasoned dried aster scaber that is a typical side dish during spring].”

This sort of vast world of kimchi is what Lee is most fascinated with. “I’m from North Jeolla where people don’t use jeotgal [fermented fish or shellfish] in kimchi, and I remember tasting my first kimchi with jeotgal and loving that pungent brininess. I think that is the moment when my passion for kimchi really burgeoned.”

Chef and certified kimchi expert Lee Seung-mi makes basil kimchi. [ON 6.5]
Chef and certified kimchi expert Lee Seung-mi makes basil kimchi. [ON 6.5]

Lee regularly travels to explore new ingredients and get inspiration for her next kimchi recipe.

The World Institute of Kimchi identifies around 150 types of kimchi, but Lee has learned through her travels that the possibilities are endless.

“The way we define kimchi has grown broader over the years, especially as it is being incorporated into dishes of more cultures in more countries. It’s been quite amazing to witness.”

Lee’s favorite unorthodox kimchi that she makes at her home every summer is melon kimchi.

“I use these small melons that come out in the summertime and eat it all year around,” she said.

Fruit kimchi — though it may sound jarring — is actually a perfectly delicious collaboration that has even won competitions and been served at luxury hotels.

Chef Moon Dong-il is the pioneer of tangerine kimchi, a staple Jeju banchan (side dish) often served at eateries around the island. Jeju is famous for producing various citrus fruits.

Moon, who has been in Jeju for 40 years, came up with the idea as he was brainstorming a new menu listing for a buffet at a hotel where he was head chef at the time, around 2014.

“It was winter when all the tangerines were harvested, and I wanted to put leftover fruits at the hotel to use,” he said. “Then I thought, well, it’s kimjang season right now — why not make tangerine kimchi?”

It felt a little experimental at first, but he said when he saw people going back for seconds, he knew the recipe was a success.

Moon has since been on cooking shows introducing tangerine kimchi and mentoring other restaurant owners in Jeju about it as well.

The taste, he described, is “soft, fresh and pleasantly acidic.”

Tangerine kimchi at chef Moon Dong-il's restaurant Chef Moon Dong-il's Nokcha Goeul (translated) in Jeju [MOON DONG-IL]
Tangerine kimchi at chef Moon Dong-il’s restaurant Chef Moon Dong-il’s Nokcha Goeul (translated) in Jeju [MOON DONG-IL]

CTO of fermented food store Uilu Mijum, Monica Choi, also enjoys exotic kimchi, from olive and artichoke to shine muscat kimchi, an expensive grape variety.

“I’ve always been sort of open and experimental with food,” said Choi, who has worked as a product developer at a large local conglomerate for some 20 years.

“I came across some cheap shine muscat at the grocery store and spontaneously got the idea of making kimchi with it. When I served it to my family, they finished the whole plate!”

Shine muscat kimchi made by Uilu Mijum's CTO Monica Choi [UILU MIJUM]
Shine muscat kimchi made by Uilu Mijum’s CTO Monica Choi [UILU MIJUM]

Though she was willing to play around with the ingredients, Choi was a stickler when it came to what she believes is the essence of kimchi: fermentation.

“I believe fermentation is key in kimchi — it’s during this process that the best nutrients are produced.”

Under this philosophy, she created fermented kimchi paste, or kimchi nuruk. Nuruk is a fermentation starter used to make makgeolli (Korean rice wine), but with delicate science and years of research, Choi has incorporated this into kimchi paste.

She also left out sugar, jeotgal and fish sauce, and used a selection of the very best, organic ingredients such as germinated brown rice and gray salt.

“We create the kimchi flavor only through organic ingredients and fermentation, which isn’t easy or cheap,” she said, but it was something very important to her. “Nuruk is what helped with my own health issues, as well as some of our customers.”

Kimchi nuruk, or fermented kimchi paste sold at online food store Uilu Mijum that mainly sells fermented paste types. [UILU MIJUM]
Kimchi nuruk, or fermented kimchi paste sold at online food store Uilu Mijum that mainly sells fermented paste types. [UILU MIJUM]

With just her and one other employee, she calls her small company in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, a lab, and herself a scientist. Her business goal is to make kimchi more accessible to young people looking for a healthy diet but who don’t have the time to make their own kimchi.

“All you need to do is mix the kimchi nuruk with some salted cabbage — the whole process takes mere minutes to prepare,” she said. “It also doesn’t have to be eaten with rice. My shine muscat kimchi is closer to a salad.”

Chef Lee from On 6.5 also said that her basil kimchi is intended to be paired with wine, or used as a palate cleanser before a new dish.

“We used to have a more narrow paradigm about kimchi, but nowadays, there is no one time or place that is appropriate for it,” Lee said. “These kinds of innovative kimchi have the potential to be enjoyed in any culture, in any country in the world.”

Basil kimchi recipe as aired on “Point of Omniscient Interfere”  

1. Toss 300 to 400 grams of fresh basil into a mixing bowl.
2. Add 5 teaspoons of fish sauce, 1 teaspoon of flavored soy sauce (optional), 1 teaspoon of brown sugar, and 4 teaspoons of gochugaru.
3. Add 100 milliliters of pear juice.
4. Finely dice 3 cloves of garlic.
5. Slice five stalks of tree onions.
6. Add everything to the bowl and gently mix.

*Chef Lee Seung-mi suggests leaving it out — at room temperature, three days in winter, one and a half days in spring and fall, and a half day in summer, or one week in a fridge — for more harmony in flavor.

Bok choy kimchi recipe, inspired by Monica Kim

1. For 300 grams of bok choy, add 5 teaspoons of salt and 1 cup of room-temperature water in a mixing bowl.

2. Mix until the salt dissolves.
3. Place the bok choy inside the bowl and gently mix so that all the bok choy gets covered.
4. Leave out at room temperature for 30 minutes to 1 hour, until the bok choy doesn’t break when bent.
5. Rinse the bok choy under running water and gently squeeze out the extra water.
6. In a mixing bowl, thoroughly mix, preferably by hand, 3 spoonfuls of Uilu Mijum’s fermented kimchi paste with the bok choy.
7. Place it on the plate.
8. Add sesame oil and sesame seeds to taste.

Bok choy kimchi with recipe by Monica Choi [LEE JIAN]
Bok choy kimchi with recipe by Monica Choi [LEE JIAN]

BY LEE JIAN [lee.jian@joongang.co.kr]