To say that kimchi packs a punch is an understatement. It possesses a crunch rivaled only by the best pickles. If its spicy kick doesn't knock you out of your flip-flops, then its sourness, the product of days, if not weeks of fermentation, certainly will. But if that doesn't get you, the smell of garlic and fish sauce and onions and who knows what else will surely do the trick.
Kimchi, a signature condiment of Korean food, encompasses hundreds of varieties, but at its most basic, it's made of crunchy vegetables (like cabbage or turnips) that have been fermented and pickled and then stored for a while to increase its pungency. If you've been paying attention to menus around town, you've surely seen it popping up everywhere, from the Holy City's most heralded haunts to its most humble food trucks.
At first you might find it both intriguing and vile, but once you develop a taste for kimchi, you will crave its unique flavor and powerful punch. Derek Lathan of Graze (863 Houston Northcutt Blvd., Mt. Pleasant, 843-606-2493) says his initial experience with kimchi was crazy. "I wasn't sure if I liked it or not," he says. "Some things are weird the first time you take a bite into them. You're not quite sure what to think about it. You haven't decided if you like it or not, and then eventually, you start to crave it, and you know that you liked it, and you liked it all along. It's just your taste buds aren't quite used to it."
Lathan now makes his own and serves it up in two dishes at his Mt. Pleasant restaurant — Korean-style beef barbecue and kimchi and pork stew. Like most stews, the kimchi and pork is not the most attractive. It's an ugly and messy looking beast that signals its heartiness.
Lathan's dish is a takeoff on kimchi chigae, traditionally made with pork belly, lots of sour kimchi (sourness increases as it ages), some tofu, and, well, pretty much anything else they want to throw in the pot. In Korea, they often add tuna. Graze's version features their house kimchi, which consists of napa cabbage, green onions, carrots, daikon, Korean red pepper flakes, garlic, ginger, fish sauce, and sesame oil. They also add huge chunks of pork shoulder, onions, bean paste, red pepper paste, and — the real star of the dish — cellophane noodles.
If you really want to get a taste of kimchi at Graze, order it as a side. Not only does Chef Lathan serve up one of the prettiest versions we've ever seen, it's nice and tangy. The mammoth — and we do mean mammoth — chunks of crunchy daikon really make for some fun eating.
Kimchi also shows up as a condiment at the Roti Rolls food truck. Not surprisingly, braised short ribs and kimchi is a great combo in one of the food truck's taco-like rotis. A dollop of some funky goat cheese provides a nice, cooling contrast. You'll also find it served with the braised pork shoulder and some rice, for a more classic version.
Over at the Tattooed Moose (1137 Morrison Dr., Downtown, 843-277-2990), the Lucky No. 1 sandwich not only manages to bring a little touch of Korea to the Lowcountry but a bit of Vietnam too. According to co-owner Mike Kulick, the No. 1 was inspired by bánh mì, the classic Vietnamese sandwich that's served on a baguette and usually made with pork, pickled carrots, daikon, cucumbers, cilantro, chili peppers, and mayo. "I thought I would run it as a special," he says. "So we ran it, and people dug it."
The Lucky No. 1 is now a permanent fixture on the Moose's menu. The sandwich is both a decadent nosh with the powerful kick of kimchi and wasabi mayo battling the fatty pork belly for flavor supremacy. Most surprising, the No. 1 is light and fresh tasting, thanks to the slices of cucumber and tomato and sprigs of cilantro on the sandwich. Kulick adds, "It's a great summertime sandwich."
Originally, Kulick used store-bought kimchi, but that soon changed. "I started reading up on some recipes for making kimchi, and it is really, really easy, and it's fairly inexpensive," he says, noting that chefs across Charleston are currently infatuated with the Korean staple. "You look around and everybody's got kimchi. It's the hot new condiment."
For Kulick's kimchi, he uses napa cabbage and daikon and adds Korean pepper powder, sugar, fish sauce, and a few other odds and ends. "We let it sit — depending on the temperature in the kitchen — for a day or two and kind of loosely cover it to get the fermentation started. Once the fermentation has gotten a pretty good hold on it, then we cover it and put it in the cooler and leave it in there for a couple more days to develop a little bit." Kulick plans to eventually set aside some of the really sour stuff.
Kimchi is at the heart of Korean cooking, so there's no better place to get your fill of this dish than at Kim's Korean and Japanese Steakhouse (1716 Hwy. 171, West Ashley, 843-571-5100). While most folks hit up this West Ashley favorite for the hibachi show, Kim's offers a sizable menu of Korean offerings. The Kim-Chee-Chegae is a good place to start. This tasty stew is served in the traditional hot-to-the-touch cauldron, its primary ingredients being kimchi and pork.
What truly makes this dish special is all the side dishes that come with it. On the night that we sampled the Kim-Chee-Chegae, we were served kimchi, cucumber kimchi, bean sprout salad, seasoned spinach salad, and potato salad.
Mama Kim's (145 Calhoun St., Downtown, 843-577-7177) is another place for authentic Korean fare and some of the tastiest kimchi around. We're not certain exactly what "Mama" Kim Brown does to it — when we called we were told that was a secret — but her kimchi brings the heat and has a tang that seems to come from a source other than fermentation.
Chef Sean Park, a native of South Korea, has also found a way to incorporate kimchi into the largely Japanese menu at O-Ku (463 King St., Downtown, 843-737-0112). Among the sashimi and nigiri, O-Ku offers a Japanese street food-inspired dish called Pigs in a Blanket, made of miso-marinated Japanese pork belly with pickled daikon wrappers and a kimchi topping. Park says that the sweetness and oiliness of the pork belly complement the acidity of the kimchi, providing nice harmony.
Park has also noticed kimchi popping up on dishes all over Charleston. "I was surprised," he says. "And I was very motivated because kimchi was being used by all the great chefs." O-Ku also serves up a kimchi dumpling with Korean barbecue on Sundays and a kimchi tartar sauce.
Park says there are more than 200 varieties of kimchi, but he uses the tried-and-true one his mom created. A smart move, considering she was a regionally famous chef in South Korea. Park has modernized the dish a bit, using napa cabbage, daikon, spring onion, pepper powder, fish sauce, shrimp sauce, rice flour, garlic, and ginger. In particular, Park likes sour kimchi. "I usually make a stew out of it with tuna," he says. "The most difficult one is with the pork belly."
Back in Korea, Park says some folks age kimchi for up to five years. "It's really rare. Only high-end restaurants have that because it needs special refrigeration," he says.
But Park says kimchi doesn't have to ferment for days and weeks at a time — much less years — to be enjoyed. "I tell my customers and everybody, you can enjoy every stage."
And for Charlestonians, that enjoyment has just begun.