I discovered kimchi as a broke hippie on the BC coast.
One particularly tight winter of rice and bean survival, a friend shared his abundant supply of fiery fermented cabbage with me so I wouldn’t die of scurvy. Only marginally aware what it was even called, the ‘spicy sauerkraut” supplied enough vitamins and flavour to get me through till dandelions and other spring greens appeared.
I would later learn that this was perhaps the most authentic way to encounter kimchi outside of Korea. Both North and South Korean government websites speak reverently of the food as a staple, and way of preserving the harvest through controlled fermentation, that allowed the population to remain properly nourished through winter, before modern food storage.
Times have changed for both Korea and myself. Now a national dish, they have special refrigerators just for kimchi, and I have become a superfan of the stuff. A main objective when I travel is to experience local varieties. If I see it on a menu here at home, or know a friend who makes it, I try it.
Cabbage based, with gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes), kimchi can be as simple as that, or include celery, cucumber, radish, even oysters or pears. Scientists have identified over 100 types of bacteria involved in its fermentation, and expect to discover more. Many of these bacteria are gut-friendly, others are suspected to benefit the immune system.
It’s given me joy to see more kimchi become available in St. John’s. Kimchi and Sushi was my first love. I relish the intensity, but the “ferment-forward” flavour profile can intimidate newbs.
J Korean has a proven, more user friendly first-time kimchi; a reliable choice for the uninitiated foodie. Asa Sushi has a lip smackin’ version ideal for snacking. Formosa Tea House offers a sweeter, less piquant interpretation I call “bay kimchi,” referencing my grandparents’ love of bread and butter pickles over spicy dill.
More places serve it periodically now too. You might find it topping a burger at The Ship Kitchen, with pork belly at Chinched Bistro or perhaps adorning ramen at Fixed. There’s rural kimchi too, at places like Bonavista’s Boreal Diner and Grates Coves Studios.
For all this goodness, no one perfect version equally satisfactory to both traditionalists and newcomers alike had appeared. Until last Monday.
And the Winner is …
I was meeting friends at Adelaide Oyster House and saw kimchi on the menu. I ordered it, a hearty bowl of brothy napa kimchi showed up. Nothing unusual here. Then I tried it. Violins cued up around me, angels began to sing. This was the best kimchi I’d had in St. John’s. I gave snippets of it to my companions, not generally kimchi fans. They loved it .
I’d found Goldilocks’ perfect bowl, accessible to all levels of fermentation friendliness. My excitement visible to my hosts, I was offered a sample of a cucumber kimchi also made in house as garnish for a tuna bowl. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
Made with the same “mother culture,” the sweetness and acidity of cucumber changed the taste as if brown sugar and extra gochugaru had been added, though they had not. I asked head chef Stephen Vardy if he learned from a master, but he informed me it was a trial and error effort. Whatever Adelaide is doing here, it’s working.
On steak, on pizza, in a grilled cheese … kimchi experiences abound. Kimchi instant noodles exist, so does a kimchi flavoured chocolate bar. Blueberry kimchi has been developed in hipster epicenter Brooklyn, and is a great idea for Newfoundland home fermenters. Mild, medium, or, “burn the mouth off ya,” kimchi may just be the side zest for millennial meals that mustard pickles were for your nan.