A column about why I love kimchi (hint: it’s not the beneficial probiotic cultures).
Among my favorite places to shop in the Bay Area is Berkeley Bowl and their other store, Berkeley Bowl West. West is on my way home for work, so I find myself stopping there often to pick up dinner ingredients. They have an impeccable selection of produce, with far more variety than any other grocery store. You can get Western staples as well as a wide spectrum of fruits and vegetables you won’t find outside of Asian grocery stores. They have a great Latinx foods section, a British foods section—really, you can find almost anything your heart desires.
They also sell a huge array of kimchi. In the years I’ve lived in the East Bay, the selection has constantly grown and evolved. Some of the kimchi they carry is great—you can find types by more than one Korean-owned company, even batches made by local Korean restaurants.
Then there is . . . the other kimchi. The kind made by people who are really into probiotics and fermentation and sauerkraut. Out of morbid curiosity—and perhaps also a desire to inflict suffering on myself as only a Korean Catholic could—I’ve sampled a wide variety of these hipster kimchi brands. Many of them claim to include “beneficial probiotic cultures,” which is not something my halmoni ever talked to me about, though it sure sounds healthy.
The most recent hipster kimchi sample I tasted came from a friendly-looking guy working at a stand inside Berkeley Bowl West. As people walked by, he boasted of the benefits of his different fermented products—up to and including something called “Kraut Juice,” which contained only organic cabbage and unrefined sea salt. I’m pretty sure this was the same “miracle tonic” that someone promoted on Facebook to help people lose weight and also cure every disease ever, which did nothing but actually give people the runs. I did not want the runs, so I did not sample the Kraut Juice. I did, however, sample the “kimchi.”
“Kimchi is a Korean fermented cabbage dish,” the sales guy said.
“I know. I’m Korean,” I replied.
He just stared at me for a moment, and then he smiled. “It’s probiotic and is really good for your gut flora.”
I smiled, too, and tried the sample. It had . . . a not-kimchi flavor. I’m guessing they based this kimchi on two kinds of kimchi, kkagdugi and the most famous kind of kimchi, baechu-kimchi. But it tasted like neither; it was a vaguely piquant, overly salty, watery-briny tangle of disappointment.
I crumpled the sample container and tossed it, mumbled my thanks, and took a picture of the label so I could look up the company when I got home.
Kimchi is a wondrous thing. It is probably the most famous food product from Korea, and an indelible part of its culture.
There is no one type of kimchi, despite what many menus and natural grocery store shelves would have you believe. Kimchi is really just a Korean way to describe pickling something, and it doesn’t even need to be spicy. Chilies didn’t come to Korea until the seventeenth century, so most older forms of kimchi aren’t spicy.
“Beneficial probiotic cultures” is not something my halmoni ever talked to me about, though it sure sounds healthy.
My favorite kinds of kimchi are the classics. Baechu-kimchi—which, if you’ve been around any Korean folks on Twitter, you know makes for a fine way to slap someone if you’re in a fight in a Korean drama—is the most famous for a reason. It’s tangy, crisp, refreshing, savory, and spicy all at the same time. I prefer my baechu-kimchi when it’s started to really turn; at that point, it gets fizzy, sort of like spicy, crunchy La Croix. It’s at that point that it makes an excellent base for kimchijigae or soondubu if you want to make either dish at home. I also really love kkakdugi, which is made with mu, a Korean radish. It’s cut into cubes and retains a strong crunch, even when it’s been sitting for as long I’m willing to let it sit. It’s delicious and refreshing on a hot day—just some kkakdugi with seaweed and rice is one of my favorite simple meals.
My first clear memories of eating kimchi are some of my earliest memories, period. My grandmother made her own kimchi for a long time, until old age and exhaustion stopped her from doing so. As a young child, I found her kimchi too strong, so my dad would gently dip leaves of baechu-kimchi into a bowl of water at the dinner table, washing off most of the spice but leaving enough flavor that I still fell in love with it.
As central as kimchi is to my family and formative years, it’s also central to Korean identity, so it’s interesting that so much commercially sold kimchi is probably from China—a sign that it’s a product big enough to be outsourced. I’m guessing a lot of Korean families still make it at home, as it’s a time-honored practice. Still, that kimchi—still made largely for Korean consumption—is different than the organic, “natural” kimchi that’s made and sold by and for a largely non-Korean audience at farmer’s markets here in the Bay Area.
At its root, kimchi has largely, historically been the product of women’s labor. The story of kimchi is a story of preservation—not just of food, but of spirit and family and community in the face of hardship, a product of women coming together for the good of each other and their larger communities. That’s a narrative that gets lost when people are simply subscribing to the latest food trend.
When you go down the rabbit hole of hipster kimchi offerings, it can become very disorienting. I found one product in several Bay Area stores called “Lil Kimchee,” which the website admits is a “hybrid take on the tradition.” (It also suggests that Lil Kimchee puts the “zing in your zen,” whatever the fuck that means.) Helpfully noted on the site is that fact that the company used to make a more typical baechu-kimchi, but that product has been discontinued. Neither their original nor Lil Kimchee versions have any fish-based products, as are used when making traditional forms of kimchi.
The story of kimchi is a story of preservation—not just of food, but of spirit and family and community.
Another website promoted a “California Style Kimchi” (spicy wakame ginger, it notes, using no Korean words). This one is promoted as a “perfect blend of Korean wisdom and California ingredients.” Exactly what “Korean wisdom” is involved is never made clear, as most Koreans would not add cayenne or bird’s eye chilies, which “envelop” the napa cabbage. This one, like the Berkeley Bowl type, also features “beneficial probiotic cultures.”
I have no problem with people making their own kimchi. It is, after all, meant to be communal, an experience shared with others. Koreans have long promoted the health benefits of kimchi, and maybe that’s not so different than an overly friendly guy pushing gut flora and probiotics from his stand at Berkeley Bowl West.
But to me, there’s something lost when kimchi becomes just another trendy condiment from your non-Korean hipster fermentation company. I think of the generations of Korean women who toiled over their onggi pots, burning their skin on the salty fish and peppers, all to make sure there was kimchi for their families even when winter grew long and other food proved scarce. I never got to eat their kimchi—you can’t get it at even the best supermarkets—but I imagine I can taste it when I eat kimchi made, at home, by the hands of someone who carries the spirit of their ancestors.
Noah Cho teaches middle-school English in the San Francisco Bay Area. His writing has appeared on NPR's CodeSwitch, Shondaland, The Atlantic, and The Toast. He spends most of his free time going on hikes with and taking photos of his doggo, Porkchop.