Kimchee's new chapter
Korea's traditional condiment blurring culinary borders
Nothing looks, tastes, feels or smells quite like kimchee, a pungent, pickled, fermented condiment that is served with nearly every Korean meal. (It's also spelled kimchi or kim chee.) Pictured, a hot dog with kimchee relish. (Bill Daley/Chicago Tribune)
"Kimchee is so distinct to Korea," Vongerichten says. "It's the first thing people think of. It's a great attention-grabber."
The condiment stars in Vongerichten's book, "The Kimchi Chronicles: Korean Cooking for an American Kitchen" (Rodale, $32.50). A self-described "staunch" traditionalist, she likes kimchee as a side dish, stirred into stews and spooned over noodles.
Perhaps not surprising given that her husband, Jean-Georges, is a chef famed for his East-West creations, the book also features recipes for a fast no-wait kimchee, a kimchee relish for hot dogs, even a cucumber kimchee martini.
Marja Vongerichten believes it's time for kimchee to be discovered and enjoyed by more people. "I think it's got huge potential," she says. "People just don't really have a knowledge of it."
Indeed, nothing looks, tastes, feels or smells quite like kimchee, a pungent, pickled, fermented condiment that is served with nearly every Korean meal. (It's also spelled kimchi or kim chee.)
Made year-round, kimchee has hundreds of variations that depend on the season and the available produce, which can include cabbage, radishes, green onions and cucumbers. Many kimchees are fiery in flavor and color thanks to the liberal application of red chili powder. It can also be stinky, but Vongerichten notes the same can be said for a number of fine French cheeses.
"Be adventurous," she urges. "Close your eyes and eat it."
Mark Miller, a restaurateur and cookbook author in Santa Fe, N.M., says the vibrantly flavored condiment feeds a hunger for "more complex flavors with less fat and salt." He's included kimchee in a book due out in October, "Salsas of the World" (Gibbs Smith, $19.99), written with Robert Quintana.
"Kimchee is becoming more mainstream," Miller said. "The idea of fermenting things and creating more umami flavors seems to be something resonating on the American palate." Umami is the fifth taste, a sense of savoriness.
"Korean flavors are big flavors," he adds. "There's a verve in those flavors resonating in the culture now."
Making kimchee at home is "fun and completely doable," Vongerichten says, but most Koreans buy it prepared at the market.
"When buying ready-made kimchee, make sure there's plenty of liquid in the container," she says. "Don't get one that's too dry; the liquid is an indicator of how fresh it is."
Vongerichten encourages experimentation. Buy a number of different small containers of kimchee and discover what you like best and what you like to serve it with.
"I love to put it out with barbecue," she says.
Spread it around
Spoon kimchee alongside grilled steak, breaded chicken, fried fish, macaroni and cheese.
Stir into cooked noodles, soups, fried rices, stews, pancake batter.
Pair with assorted small plates in the Korean style, such as cold, steamed broccoli; sauteed shiitake mushrooms; bean sprout salad; stir-fried spinach; even a mayo-based potato salad.