(Yonhap Feature) San Francisco cultivates kimchi as California cuisine
By Tammy Quackenbush
SAN FRANCISCO, Nov. 13 (Yonhap) -- For the natural-meets-creative tenets of California cuisine, Korean-style fermented kimchi fits right in. Finding it is quite easy across a chain of stores in the Bay Area, some made in the generations-old traditional Korean style and other decidedly experimental, and not necessarily made by Koreans.
Alex Hozven and her husband, Kevin Farley, both 40, operate the Cultured Pickle Shop (www.culturedpickleshop.com) in Berkeley, California. She is the culinary brains and has been crafting kimchi variations for more than 10 years. They sell Western cabbage kimchi, which is distributed to stores around San Francisco Bay, as well as seasonal varieties that are exclusive to their store.
Cafe Gratitude (www.cafegratitude.com) is a chain of nine California restaurants with eight under that name that specialize in raw, vegan cuisine. Sold in company restaurants and at local grocery stores and cooperatives, Cafe Gratitude's "Kim Chee" carries the tagline "I am alive."
The kimchi produced by Elli Hilmer and Balyn Rose of Wild Rose Ranch (wildroseranchferments.blogspot.com) is an elusive find. They sell it only at a two local farmers' markets in Sonoma County wine country north of San Francisco: Santa Rosa Original Farmers Market, open Saturday mornings year-round, and Occidental Bohemian Farmers Market, open June through October on Fridays.
San Francisco resident Ahram Kim, 36, about the only one of the area's kimchi makers who can claim Korean blood, sells her product under the label Ahram Namu. It's currently sold at San Francisco's Rainbow Grocer, Avedano's meat market in San Francisco, and the Backyard community supported agriculture cooperative in Santa Rosa, about 88 kilometers north.
Ahram Namu oyster kimchi
Kim was born in Seoul and moved to the U.S. at age two. During her childhood, she visited his grandmother in Seoul yearly. Her kimchi recipe was inspired by watching her elders make it from scratch but she said her dish has a style all its own.
"I just started making it at home and tweaking things until I got a final product that I liked," she said.
These wholesalers agree that kimchi appeals to the culinary culture of California.
"There is an increasing market for fermented foods and their (nutritional) value," Hozven said. "The San Francisco Bay area is more adventurous in their food choices."
Kim says the active, health-conscious lifestyle of the area creates fertile ground for kimchi, with buyers mostly interested in natural or organic food and in fermented foods.
A higher level of education in general and on the healthfulness of active cultures in food is spurring sales for Cafe Gratitude's kimchi, according to Treasure De la Cruz, catering, wholesale and events manager. "The stores that sell it have steady sales," she said.
These Bay Area kimchi producers pride themselves on using organic and seasonal ingredients. Those, along with fusion of cooking styles, are hallmarks of California cuisine.
Cafe Gratitude describes its kimchi as "a vegan take on the traditional South Korean dish. Mildly spicy, tangy, and tart. This dish is probiotic and contains lots of vitamin C." This variation, made with daikon radish, Western cabbage, green chilies and garlic, isn't red like traditional baechu kimchi, but it has plenty of garlic and a chili kick.
Most vegetables for the kimchi and other products and dishes are grown via organic and Biodynamic methods on the company's Be Love Farm, located in the northeast Bay Area city of Vacaville.
California and the U.S. have involved rules for organic certification. Certification of cultivation as Biodynamic is overseen by Demeter International chapters.
Wild Rose Ranch, which operates the Sonoma Mountain CSA co-op, sources all its kimchi ingredients locally from Sonoma and Mendocino counties. In addition to Western cabbage, the ranch's kimchi has ginger, garlic, red pepper and, interestingly, sea palm, which provides the savory saltiness traditionally provided by salted shrimp or fish sauce.
Sea palm is an ingredient found only in the Pacific Northwest, from British Columbia in Canada to California's Central Coast. Harvesting the protected marine vegetable is forbidden in most of the Pacific Northwest. However, California permits limited commercial collection. Wild Rose Ranch buys its sea palm from Mendocino County, part of California's North Coast.
Wild Rose emphasizes ginger in its mild-style kimchi. Some in the States consider the word kimchi synonymous with "spicy" and call any leafy, spicy, fermented vegetable "kimchi."
Kim started making organic kimchi after she went to work for a grocery store whose produce was virtually all certified organic.
"I was surprised to find that I could get most of the ingredients organic," she said. "I wanted to make my own kimchi, because I couldn't find an organic kimchi at Korean stores."
Cultured Pickle Shop's kimchis are seasonal, based on local produce available in the Bay Area at different times of the year.
Cafe Gratitude Chef Chelsea with kimchi bibimbap
"We use all organic ingredients - no sugars or fish-based products," Hozven said.
For Cafe Gratitude, another differentiating selling point for its kimchi is the use of Himalayan pink salt, chosen for its attributed health benefits and the purity ascribed to the source, according to De la Cruz. The salt is mined from ancient sea beds deep in the Himalayan mountains. A number of trace minerals in it are associated with healthy function of cells in the body.
The Cultured Pickle Shop also takes a risk with their kimchi, making it more sour than others on the market.
"Most commercial-made kimchis tend to be a young ferment," Hozven said. "That's why many of the jars tend to be a bit explosive. A more mature kimchi is more shelf-stable."
Fermentation vessels used are as varied as the kimchi-makers themselves. Cultured Pickle Shop uses stainless-steel wine-making equipment to ferment commercial-size batches. Kim makes kimchi in five-gallon (nearly 19 liter) food-grade plastic containers. Cafe Gratitude pickles its product in traditional ceramic crocks.
There's room in the Bay Area kimchi marketplace for myriad approaches to the staple of Korean cuisine, Kim said.
"There are your traditionalists and those who like to experiment," she said. "I think there is something for everyone."