Traditionally its own side dish on the Korean peninsula, kimchi's day has arrived in America thanks to a number of chefs who have been finding new uses for the fermented vegetables that come out of the jar tasting like sauerkraut's spicy and sour cousin from another continent, namely by dumping a couple of hearty dollops of it on top of some of our favorite comfort foods.
While there are over 80 varieties of kimchi, as recorded by the Kimchi Field Museum, the most familiar variety is tongbaechu-kimchi, or the traditional, spicy Napa cabbage kimchi. It's made with hot pepper flakes, scallions, ginger, Korean radish, and fish sauce, among other ingredients. But since the first thing somebody might notice is the strong-smell, kimchi and Korean food in general hasn't quite become as popular as other Asian cuisines, like Japanese sushi or pad thai from Thailand.
One of its most recent boosters was Umami Burger, which opened its third New York City location in March of this year. As part of opening in the hip Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn that’s already brimming with restaurants to compete with, Umami Burger unveiled the K-BBQ, short for the Korean Barbecue Burger. Created by their executive chef Ted Hopson, and topped with a caramelized cabbage-based kimchi and the almost equally pungent gochujang glaze. The result is a burger with a flavor that's tangy, but sweet, not quite the spiciness I expected. According to general manager Alex Adelman, so far it's a fan favorite. "It was the right place to debut our K-BBQ burger," he noted, as the burger is exclusively offered in the Williamsburg location for now, with plans to expand the offering to all Umami locations.
Umami Burger isn't the first to introduce kimchi to the customer's palate by pairing it with more familiar flavors. Korean-American author Alexander Chee cited a who's who list of Korean American chefs who have worked to introduce Korean food to America over email, including Jenny Kwak and her mom Myung Ja Kwak, Roy Choi, David Chang and Hooni Kim. "They have all done more to mainstream those flavors than anyone else," he added. "In particular, Roy is the one who made Korean tacos a thing, which happened pretty much as a relationship between him and the Mexican food and Mexican American people around him in Los Angeles."
Chef Phil Lee has done similar work in Brooklyn since 2011 with his Kimchi Taco Truck. "My personal goal as a Korean American has always been to popularize Korean food in America by making it more accessible to Americans who never tried or been turned off because of its strong flavors," he explained over email. Lee decided to pair kimchi with tacos and other 'street classics' like burritos and falafel. For him, it's a matter of introducing foods like kimchi in a subtle way, such as a topping on a taco. It's all about small steps. Lee compared it to approaching sushi for the first time: "You don’t just start with uni or sashimi but you graduate from cucumber rolls to California rolls." There's a level of guidance necessary, and Lee is more than happy to provide it with his Kimchi Taco Truck, and now his restaurant Kimchi Grill with two Brooklyn locations.
The main key to kimchi's recent success has been introducing kimchi as an "additive" to dishes customers are already familiar with, but there's also the health benefits, as Kimchi Grill's site notes: vitamin A and C, carotene thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), calcium, and iron, along with healthy bacteria, similar to the kind in yogurt. As Americans begin to gravitate towards more healthy foods, this positive tendency opens culinary, and culture, doors.
While other internationally-born sides like hummus or guacamole have become popular in America in recent years, kimchi renders those almost subtle in comparison, it's a more complex and ultimately difficult taste and smell to get used to. Somebody who grew up with it around, Chee finds humor in the current popularity of kimchi: "I remember my dad trying to take a big barrel of it into Canada to give to some friends, and the customs officials made him open it. They had opened it because he had said 'Don't open that!' Then they wanted to throw it out, because of the smell, and he kept saying 'No, no, it's supposed to smell like this.'" Eventually, his father was allowed to bring it with him as the customs officials "evacuated the building because of the smell." He's glad to see Americans embracing kimchi, but he said the real test of liking it is if you'll have it with your breakfast food to really call yourself a connoisseur. While Lee notes that making kimchi itself can be an intimidating days long process, not including the months to ferment, he said it’s best to start simply by working with his version of non-fermented cucumber 'kimchi,' and going from there.
RECIPE: Kimchi Taco’s Quick Cucumber Kimchi by Phil Lee
- 1 cucumber – thinly sliced
- 1 stalk of scallion – finely chopped
- 1 table-spoon of rice wine vinegar
- 1 table-spoon of soy sauce
- 1 table-spoon of sesame oil
- 1 tea-spoon of Korean pepper flakes – but can substitute by crushing some dried red chili pepper
- 1/2 tea-spoon of salt
- 1/2 tea-spoon of pepper
Combine everything until cucumber is well coated with all other ingredients. Let it sit for 5-10 minutes and serve. You can bottle it and will be good up to 2 weeks but best eaten immediately. This “kimchi” is good with just plain white rice or noodles; or can be even served with steak or grilled chicken.