An Interview with Lauryn Chun
founder of Mother-in-Law's Kimchi and author of The Kimchi Cookbook: 60 Traditional and Modern Ways to Make and Eat Kimchi
Kimchi, the traditional fermented Korean side dish, can be enjoyed many ways. There are those who like their kimchi hot and spicy, while others enjoy a milder flavor. Some may appreciate a bit of seafood in their bowl, while others prefer a purely vegetarian version. Then there's fermentation, which for a few people might take years, but for others might not be used at all. Yet, no matter how you slice it, cook it, ferment it or eat it, the centuries-old delicacy is well-loved.
Growing up in a Korean household, Lauryn Chun was used to having gallons of kimchi in the refrigerator or watching kimchi bubbling in the sink. She learned about the traditional food from the hands of her maternal grandmother and her mother, the owner of Jang Mo Jip ("Mother-in-Law's House") in Garden Grove, California. Years later, Lauryn founded Mother-in-Law's Kimchi (MILKimchi), a labor of love created to share with others her life-long experience with the dish, as well as honor her Korean heritage. Over time she has explored the many varieties of kimchi: mild, hot and spicy, tangy and tart, seafood-laden, Basque-inspired and more. Her new book, The Kimchi Cookbook: 60 Traditional and Modern Ways to Make and Eat Kimchi includes the best recipes from this exploration. In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, The New York Public Library is thrilled to welcome Lauryn Chun to the iconic Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on May 8th for an evening (complete with cooking demonstration) with writer Ben Ryder-Howe. For a sneak peek about what will be discussed, Lauryn answered a few questions for NYPL's eager readers at the Huffington Post.
1. What was tasting and making your first kimchi like?
I recall making my first batch with excitement and anticipation. Once I determined that I wanted to launch my own kimchi business, I trained myself by watching and learning from my mother and ajumas (reverent term for ladies in Korean) who still cook at my mother's 25 year old Korean restaurant in California, kind of a crash course or boot camp for kimchi making. I had brined the cabbage and mixed in the seasoning to make about a 100 lb batch on my own for the annual Pickle Day Festival held in the Lower East Side of NYC in fall of 2009 in my commercial kitchen. As I was mixing the ingredients together and seeing the visuals of red chile paste seasoning, the fresh yet pungent smell of garlic and ginger, it gave me such a sense of comfort and reverence for food of my ancestors and history. Most of all, it captured a vivid smell and memory of my childhood watching my maternal grandmother make kimchi during Kimjang, the annual fall cabbage harvest of 'putting up' kimchi in preparation for the winter season. In an unexpected way, the process of making that first commercial batch of kimchi on my own as an adult brought back a complete cycle of my identity as an American and Korean where the two seemingly different cultures came together meaningfully.
2. Do you have a favorite kimchi style?
It is probably most customary to grow up eating the style of kimchi that their mom or grandmother makes, Koreans remain loyal to this tradition. I have met Korean customers at kimchi tastings who are afraid to 'betray' their mom's kimchi by even tasting a bite of ours.
My favorite kimchi style is our own at Mother-in-Law's Kimchi which I described as Basque style (mixture of regional styles like the areas in France/Spain where I love the cooking) where seafood and rich flavors are bold, focused flavors with a balanced fermented umami notes. The kimchi recipe is actually a variation of the recipe which has evolved from our family and the ladies who have been cooking there for the past 25 years. I prefer a bold, pungent, seafood style of the South or clean flavors of the North where less seafood is used. There's also the deliciousness of white (or mild) kimchi made without chile flakes and some of the oldest kimchi recipes before Korea had any access to chile flakes in 17th century. I love the tangy, crisp, deep flavors of fermentation that you get fermenting vegetables on their own. Kimchi does not have to spicy or with cabbage to be delicious.
3. Why did you write this book?
I wrote this cookbook because I wanted to share the full scope and tradition of kimchi rooted in seasons and dispel many misconceptions about kimchi. Kimchi is essentially an agrarian tradition simply as a way to preserve vegetables. I also wanted to document kimchi making in English and give access to those interested in preserving the fermented food tradition and share the health benefits of eating a raw, fermented foods in their daily lives. I want to show how delicious and economical it is to add flavor and vegetable in our diets. It is also a personal homage to my own past and heritage -- a cross cultural journey in search of the meaning of food and finding my voice.
4. Since the publication, did you notice more people making kimchi?
Yes, most definitely, I didn't realize how many people wanted to learn more about kimchi making. With our DIY Homemade Kimchi Kits, we've been asking more people to send us pictures and success with kimchi. Many have said they didn't realize how accessible and easy it was to make kimchi at home. After all, the definition of kimchi literally comes from the root words 'salted vegetables.'
5. What about fermented food? Why is that so popular these days?
Fermented food is the most basic and ancient way that humans preserved food (such as wine, cheese, sauerkraut, soy sauce, soy bean paste, etc.). We we have become a highly evolved society, our connection to our food is going more basic in our need to understand simplicity and nuture our food system from an anti-industrialized, process food society. I think it makes sense as chefs and food trend is going towards getting back to ancient, time honored food traditions that is deep rooted in nature (foraging) and fermentation (living bacteria).
As more Americans are becoming more conscious about the food system and I wanted to share a true understanding of how healthful and delicious choices of eating fermented foods can be empowering. Growing up in a Korean household, having gallons of kimchi in the refrigerator or watching bubbling kimchi in the sink was a natural occurrence for me. I want to be able have more Americans have less fear and more informed relationship with eating vegetables and raw foods that have such good beneficial bacteria for our healthy digestive system and developing healthy immune systems for children.
6. Any secret cooking tips in making and/or preserving kimchi?
I think the best way to describe kimchi and its taste is such a personal one and vast similar to making wines. There should be a balance of flavors (seasonings, spicy) not too salty, spicy and texture which should be tangy and have a pleasant finish. A well crafted kimchi will taste better with age and time like a bottle of fine red wine.
If you are aging kimchi, store them in smaller (pint size) jars with lids store in back of the refrigerated for months and up to years. Hang out with your kimchi and taste it at different times as you will note how the flavors and taste keep changing with time. Do not be afraid of the bubbles in your kimchi and be aware of the pressure build up inside the lids as kimchi ferments and releases its gases, it's a unique by product of raw fermentation and the bubbles give the taste of tanginess as it is essentially making its own vinegar to preserve the safe beneficial bacteria.
When cooking with kimchi, always use the most 'aged' (more than two months) tangy kimchi you have on hand to get the most developed kimchi flavors that are so delicious and subtle when you add to recipes and cook with it. It's a bit like using a pickled vinegar on your foods and versatile in its ability to complement a wide range of dishes from fatty proteins like meat, cheese and eggs to mild tofu and grains.