By Vicki Hyman/The Star-Ledger The Star-Ledger
My first encounter with kimchi was brief. I’d just read Marja Vongerichten’s new book “The Kimchi Chronicles: Korean Cooking for an American Kitchen,” and inspired, I stopped by my local Korean supermarket and picked up a pint of the fiery, fermented condiment and took it into work. Around lunchtime, I cracked it open, speared a bite, chewed … and gagged. I choked it down.
My second encounter, after several minutes of steeling myself, was even more fleeting. I spit it out.
“Kimchi, it’s an acquired taste,” admits Vongerichten (yes, she’s married to star restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten), “but once you acquire it, it becomes quite addictive.”
Maybe my kimchi was at the funkier end of its lifespan. I’ll just have to take her word for it.
Kimchi, the Korean national dish, is often made from Napa cabbage, radishes, scallions, garlic, ginger, fish sauce, gochugaru (the red pepper powder ubiquitous in Korean cuisine) and lots of salt, but there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of variations. Prized for its health properties, it can be eaten on its own, as an accompaniment to grilled meat, or incorporated into stews and fried rice.
But increasingly you can find it in less traditional environs — David Chang of New York’s groundbreaking Momofuku empire offers a blue cheese and kimchi croissant and kimchi-marinated apples with smoky bacon and arugula with a yogurty-maple dressing. The Korean taco craze that started in Los Angeles has spread to the East Coast — at the Krave food truck in Jersey City, you can even find a kimchidilla made with your choice of meat, fried kimchi purée, jack cheese and sour cream.
Vongerichten whips up a kimchi Mary, spiking tomato juice with soju, a vodka-like alcohol popular in Korea, and spicy, sour kimchi liquid, and creates a Korean version of fish and chips with a gochugaru-flecked batter and kimchi tartar sauce.
Perhaps the best example of Vongerichten’s quest to make Korean food more accessible to the American palate is the kimchi hot dog — thinly sliced kimchi tempered with honey and rice vinegar topping a grilled frank. When Vongerichten moved in with her husband, she brought along her 1-gallon bucket of kimchi, and Jean-Georges admits he was knocked out at first by the funk in the fridge, though he has since come around.
Outside Korean barbecue joints, which specialize in the thinly sliced grilled meat called bulgogi, Korean cuisine has been slow to catch on over here. There doesn’t seem to be a safe — read: watered-down — entry point, like pad Thai, Philadelphia rolls or chicken tikka masala.
“The most terrifying thing about Korean food for the Westerner is the spice, the heat that comes with it,” Vongerichten says. “My mantra has been, you just have to expose it. Westerners are into stinky French cheese that smells like ugh. They understand it now. They’ve been cultured. I think that’s all Korean food really needs.”
Vongerichten’s mother is Korean, and her father was a serviceman who abandoned her mother when she was pregnant. Her mother gave her up, and she was adopted by a U.S. Marine colonel and his wife then stationed in Korea. They took her home to northern Virginia, where she was raised.
Vongerichten discovered kimchi when she was 14 and found a jar in her local supermarket: “The flavor — pungent, fiery, sour, earthy, full of garlic — seemed to speak directly to a part of me that I felt, but couldn’t quite articulate,” she writes in the book, which is a companion to the public television series by the same name, currently airing on WLIW21.
Thanks to conscientious record-keeping by her adoptive parents, Vongerichten was later able to track down her birth mother, who had since moved to Brooklyn, and they reconnected over bulgogi and chonggak kimchi, made with Korean ponytail radishes.
If you’re interested in experimenting with Korean flavors, Vongerichten offers some recipes that are easier on the palate, like mung bean pancakes made with rice and some sour kimchi liquid. “Everyone would swear it’s potatoes,” she says. “It’s just a few little Korean seasonings in there.” Or check out your local Asian grocery (H Mart, headquartered in Lyndhurst, carries all the Korean staples and has six locations in New Jersey) and pick up some gochugaru, a Korean soy sauce, and some fish sauce and play around a bit — they can work as flavor enhancers in many types of cuisines.
And don’t let my reaction to kimchi scare you away. I offered the rest of the kimchi to my editor along with some rice, and she wolfed it down.
“If you look at most other cultures, they do have these fermented foods,” Vongerichten says. “It just kind of translates a little easier.” In Alsace, France, where Jean-Georges grew up, he had pickled cabbage and sauerkraut. Kimchi, she says, is a “a little step up. It’s a little kick.”