Kimchi, Korean food a tonic for hard times

While kimchi gains appeal, local farmers seize on this Korean essential for its practicality

Jere Downs, @JereDowns

Korea's national dish, kimchi, echoes the practicality of want. It represents an ethos ingrained for generations, chef Edward Lee said, including his grandmother and father who endured the Korean war and its aftermath. 

Grasshoppers raw ingredients for Kimchi at Chef Space.

"Korean food is less about celebration and luxury than it is about survival, extracting joy out of a small nugget of a meal that may be your only pleasure in that day," said Lee, the nationally-acclaimed chef, and owner of 610 Magnolia and Milkwood in Kentucky.

Stored in jars against hardship on the Korean peninsula, kimchi is most well-known as a fiery mix of cabbage, garlic, radish, ginger and red pepper paste. In practice, kimchi is a fermentation technique transforming hundreds of vegetable combinations into small, piquant plates on the Korean table.

"There is comfort and history and pain involved in that," Lee said. "It is a flavor explosion because they had to make do with cabbage and the greens that were wilting around them."

The thrifty Korean pantry is stocked with spicy or fermented pastes, durable noodles, dried fish, brined meats, rice, rice cakes, and more rice. Korean food smacks of resilience, a cuisine of morale-boosting meals to survive deprivation.

The scallion pancake, a quick mix of egg, rice flour, and a handful of green onions and kimchi carefully crisped in a cast iron skillet is a gateway dish into this elusive culture. Splashed with sesame oil, soy sauce, and rice vinegar, this cheap savory treat epitomizes Korean food, what Lee called a "painstaking stew of spice and frugality and brutally honest flavors." 

►MAKE IT AT HOME: Recipe for Korean scallion pancake 

This is food designed to "last the winter, or last the next invasion," Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Adam Johnson said in the new cookbook, "Koreatown."

It may be no coincidence that Korean food and the popularity of its most accessible bite, kimchi, are taking off amid the coldest political climate in recent memory. For U.S. workers, wages continue their 30-year decline against ever-creeping inflation. News reports carry bristling dispatches about Russian interference in the recent election. The only point of agreement among the increasingly divided electorate is that Americans live in unprecedented times.

Is Korean food a tonic for souls? McCormick, the spice company, has bet on it, introducing Korean-Style Red Pepper in a supermarket spice jar and touting the benefits of "gochugaru" in its new, fall product line.

Enter Grasshoppers, a new local food company seizing on kimchi as a practical product to preserve Kentucky farm crops year-round for consumers increasingly interested in authenticity and the growing number of cooks committed to knowing where their food comes from.  

This month, farmer Ivor Chodkowski raced to harvest Napa cabbage, radish, garlic and ginger from Field Day Family Farm against Kentucky's fickle threats of deep freezing temperatures overnight. All those crops grow at the same time, a tenet of Grasshoppers' commitment to seasonal and local farm sources for its better-known preserved pantry products like Cilantro Pesto and Black Bean Mashup.

Ivor Chodkowski, left, is a farmer and co-owner of Grasshoppers. Chef Nick King, right, makes Kimchi at Chef Space in Louisville.

"We are trying to beat the frost on the cabbage," Grasshoppers chef Nick King said as he stacked 300 pounds of chopped vegetables into nine-gallon buckets to ferment inside the commercial kitchens at Chef Space. "We are doing this for very practical reasons." 

A few days later, temperatures still hovered above freezing when Chodkowski pulled 60 pounds of bok choy, 120 pounds of Napa cabbage and 100 pounds of red watermelon and purple daikon radishes out of the ground. Rescued from winter's clutch, both harvests resulted in 500-pint jars of Grasshoppers Kimchi.

While easy to grow during the mild Southern fall, sturdy vegetables like these don't sell in high volumes to restaurants, to customers at the farmers market or consumers who subscribe to weekly CSA boxes, Chodkowski said. By making kimchi instead, local farmers can grow hundreds of pounds of cabbage and radishes for kimchi to last "last forever in the refrigerator."

Grasshoppers kimchi is "such a fun, beautiful, colored thing," Ivor said. "I hope people buy lots of it."

If Korean food can brace the spirit against hard times, how is kimchi eaten? Where are its local ingredients?

Study up with "Koreatown," the new cookbook by Manhattan chef Deuki Hong and Matt Rodbard. In that cookbook, Lee shares his recipe to whip up a gallon of Red Cabbage Bacon Kimchi, with green apples, carrots and red onion. "Koreatown" lists exhaustive definitions and images of ingredients, both preserved and fresh. Shop Choi's Asian Food Market, where gochurachu is labeled in Korean as a red paste or as flakes. (Take a permanent marker to label purchases in English in order to identify products later.)

Grasshoppers chef Nick King making a Kimchi pancake at Chef Space.

For a fun, accessible journey into Korean home cooking, pick up "Cook Korean!".  A new author, graphic artist Robin Ha breaks her immigrant mother's recipes down in this comic book cookbook that includes a section on the Korean porridges known as "juk." All juk begins with slow-cooking rice with lots of water, branching off into soothing recipes of sweet pumpkin, red bean, pine nut or black sesame.

Eat Korean at six Louisville-area restaurants listed in the latest Food And Dine magazine restaurant guide. The winter 2016 issue highlights the mung bean, kimchi pancake "nokdo jeon" at Charim, 4123 Oechsli Ave., in St. Matthews.

A feat of marinated meat for any home cook, the "bibimbap" is renowned at Sarang, 1908 Eastern Parkway. In New Albany, Indiana, discover the chewy bliss of rice cakes in fiery red sauce at Rice Bowl, 3114 Grant Line Road, or check out Kim & Bab, 3012 Charlestown Crossing Way. That leaves Koreana, 5009 Preston Highway and Lee's Korean Restaurant, 1941 Bishop Lane, to try in Louisville.

Jere Downs can be reached at (502) 582-4669, and Jere Downs on Facebook.

Grasshoppers Korean scallion pancake

A Grasshoppers Kimchi pancake at Chef Space in Louisville, KY. Dec. 13, 2016

While Choi's Asian Market in Lyndon sells kimchi by the gallon, find locally-produced kimchi by Grasshoppers at Rainbow Blossom Natural Markets or Duck Duck Beet's brand sold at the Bardstown Road Farmers Market. Top a taco with kimchi. Fold its acidic, sinus-clearing funk into scrambled eggs. One of the most accessible Korean dishes for cooks new to the craft is this scallion kimchi pancake, or "Kimchi Jeon."  Rice flour and club soda are essential to produce a crispy, fluffy result, like Japanese tempura. Otherwise, the pancake will be soggy and heavy, Grasshoppers chef Nick King warned. Once opened, sesame oil is best stored in the refrigerator.  Makes two pancakes

  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup rice flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 cup chopped scallions, with some saved for garnish
  • 1/2 cup kimchi, chopped
  • 1/4 cup kimchi juice
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup club soda
  • 3 tablespoons grapeseed oil or another oil with a high smoking point

Mix dry ingredients together. Add club soda and whisk. Add chopped kimchi with its juice, the scallions and egg.  Preheat the oil in a 12-inch skillet until the oil is smoking hot. Ladle in 1/2 cup batter and spread evenly in the pan. Fry for four minutes on each side. Take care to brown the pancake well, while not burning it.  Top finished pancake with raw scallions for garnish. Eat with soy sauce. You can also make "Jeon" dipping sauce. Combine three tablespoons each of rice vinegar, soy sauce and sesame oil. Add two teaspoons of hot pepper flakes or paste known asgochugaru. Add two teaspoons toasted sesame seeds.  

Source: Nick King,chef, Grasshoppers

Grasshoppers Kimchi at Chef Space in Louisville, KY. Dec. 13, 2016