Lauryn Chun, author of The Kimchi Cookbook, has come full-circle in her relationship with the essential Korean side dish.
by JULIE HA
When Lauryn Chun was a girl growing up in Southern California, her mother taught her an important lesson that will likely be familiar to many a Korean American: Do not share kimchi with, nor eat it in the presence of, your non-Korean friends. Decades later, of course, Chun is not only sharing it with her non-Korean friends, she’s sharing it with the public at large. She is the owner of Mother-in-Law’s Kimchi, which sells jars of the famous fermented cabbage at artisan stores and specialty shops, and now author of The Kimchi Cookbook, published by Random House imprint Ten Speed Press.
“It’s the irony of life,” remarks Chun, during a phone interview last month from New York, where she lives. “I never ever set out to get into the Korean food business, let alone be selling kimchi or even be talking about it. But yeah, in those days, in [the 1970s], my mom loved to feed people as most Korean mothers did, but there was that shame about that one Korean food.”
It was the most foreign of the then-still-foreign Korean cuisine, with its bright red color and pungently stinky odor. How could non-Koreans be expected to understand what kimchi was, how central it was to this unfamiliar East Asian culture, and why on earth it smelled that way? But fast forward 30 years later, and it’s not uncommon to find kimchi incorporated into quesadillas and gourmet burgers at American restaurants, and featured or referenced on any number of Food Network shows, from Cupcake Wars to Iron Chef America.
“Obviously American society and culture have changed so much in the last 35 years,” says Chun.
So has she. Growing up straddling two worlds as a Korean American, Chun recalled how she used to get annoyed that her family would have kimchi alongside their turkey at Thanksgiving. “I thought, ‘Could we not Koreanize this meal?” she says, laughing.
And yet today, she is trying to “Koreanize” everyday American meals with a cookbook that includes 60 recipes that show readers how to prepare 30 traditional kimchi varieties (from instant red leaf lettuce kimchi, or sang-chu gutjori, to cucumber, or oi, kimchi, to tender young napa cabbage, or putbaechu, kimchi), but also 30 modern takes, like skirt steak ssam with kimchi puree chimichurri, red curry mussels with kimchi and roasted brussel sprouts with cipollini onion kimchi.
There’s even a grilled MILKimcheeze sandwich recipe, which was a collaboration between her and Anne Saxelby, owner of Saxelby Cheesemongers in New York City. The two cooks had experimented pairing various cheeses of different levels of fermentation with various kimchi. In the cookbook, Chun writes that it was fascinating to try “two completely different fermented products side by side and taste the difference in flavor brought out in the kimchi by fresh goat cheese versus aged cow cheese.”
It was actually such European culinary traditions as cheese-making and wine-making that sparked Chun’s interest in pursuing a career in food and wine. She previously worked as an assistant manager at an upscale French restaurant and used to organize editorial tastings for a national wine magazine. It was upon making a batch of kimchi herself for the first time three years ago, however, that she says she truly “smelled kimchi for the first time” and began to see it not just as a cheap condiment you get at the grocery store, but rather as a culinary tradition that deserves respect.
The smell of the ground red pepper brought her back to her childhood in Korea, where she lived until age 8. As a 6-year-old, she remembers her grandmother making kimchi with neighborhood ajummas during kimjang, the annual fall cabbage harvest. Occasionally, her grandmother would give her small pieces of the inner cabbage leaf with the rolled-up stuffing in them—it was a taste of the kimchi the family would be eating all winter and a precious memory to this day.
“There is this kind of powerful thing to have this one connection to one ingredient, one food that can identify a nation, a culture,” Chun says. “It’s something that says a lot about what it is to be Korean.
“It’s like that saying, you show me what a country eats, and I’ll show you who you really are. There’s a lot of truth to that and to kimchi.”
Chun displays an almost-reverence for the perennial side dish. In researching and writing the cookbook, which goes into great detail explaining the fermentation process that is key to kimchi-making, she said she learned to have a fuller appreciation for the history of Korea as an agrarian culture with deep connections to the land—an idea sometimes forgotten as the modern South Korea is known today as a fast-paced, technologically advanced nation. She also learned about the incredible labor, time and care put into making kimchi, the resourcefulness of using whatever vegetables or roots that were available and in season to make it, and the idea of treating vegetables with respect.
She recognized the connection between kimchi and the European food traditions of wine- and cheese-making, for which she felt such a passion. Now kimchi is her passion. “[Kimchi is] really a high-quality product and should be regarded as handcrafted food based on an ancient tradition—like cheese or wine,” says Chun.
That conviction is what led her to launch Mother-in-Law’s Kimchi in 2009 (its name is an homage to her mother’s Garden Grove, Calif., restaurant called Mother-in-Law’s House) and to target specialty stores to sell the handcrafted product. It was a major boon when she got Dean & Deluca’s flagship store in New York City’s SoHo district to carry the jars (which are also sold online), and she has received positive press from the New York Times and Los Angeles Magazine.
“How did I go from my mom saying ‘don’t ever share this with the world,’ and here I am sharing it with the world?” Chun reflects. “You kind of go searching, then you go back to the place where you came from.
“I’m seeing kimchi in a way I never understood or accepted in my life before. Through learning about and appreciation of the Western traditions of food, wine-making and cheese-making, all these things I was more interested in, then to come full circle, and [realize that] this is all part of Korean food, too, that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Now I get to tell the world that kimchi is just like sauerkraut, just like wine-making, just like cheese-making. Now I get to be a bridge.”
Butternut Squash Kimchi with Lacinato Kale and Pine Nuts
Prep: 20 minutes
Brine: 40 minutes
Fermentation: 2 to 3 days
Makes 4 cups (4 to 6 servings)
In a large bowl, mix the squash with 4 cups of the water and the 2 tablespoons salt. Set aside for 40 minutes. Drain the brine and allow the squash to dry in the colander.
Meanwhile, in a medium colander, toss the kale with 2 teaspoons of the salt and set aside for 15 minutes. Using the colander, rinse off any excess salt with water, then set the colander over a bowl and allow the remaining water to drain into the bowl. Set aside the water that drains off the rinsed kale.
In a large bowl, combine the squash and kale with the chile pepper flakes, garlic, ginger, and pine nuts and toss until the seasonings are well incorporated. Place the mixture into a quart-size container with a tight lid. Swirl the water that drained off the kale and add 1/2 cup water and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt. Or, use mushroom broth in place of the water and salt. Add the sugar and stir to dissolve. Ladle the mixture into the container until one-third of the contents are covered.
Allow the mixture to ferment at room temperature for 2 to 3 days. Refrigerate and consume within 1 month.
Korean “Gazpacho” Water Kimchi in Red Pepper Broth
› Prep: 40 minutes › Brine: 20 minutes › Fermentation: 1 to 2 days › Makes 12 cups (6 to 8 servings)
In a large bowl, mix together the cabbage, radish, and salt and let stand at room temperature for 20 minutes.
In a medium bowl, mix 6 cups water with the chile pepper flakes and allow the flakes to steep in the water for 20 minutes. Using a fine-mesh strainer or two layers of cheesecloth, strain the chile pepper flake broth into another bowl; the broth should not have any chile pepper flakes in it and should have a crimson tint.
In a large bowl, combine the brined cabbage and radish (along with their liquid) with the green onions, yellow onion, carrots, and pepper. Stir in the porridge, garlic, and ginger. Transfer the cabbage mixture and the chile water to a gallon-size container or two 2-quart containers. Cover and let sit at room temperature for 1 to 2 days, then refrigerate and eat within 2 weeks.
Reprinted with permission from The Kimchi Cookbook: 60 Traditional and Modern Ways to Make and Eat Kimchi, by Lauryn Chun, copyright © 2012. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.
This article was published in the December 2012 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the December issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only.)