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Oh Kimchi founders keep Korean traditions alive

Oh Kimchi founders keep Korean traditions alive

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Published : 2014-02-05 19:41
Updated : 2014-02-05 19:41

Abigail Lunde (left) and her mom, Jenny Long, holding Lunde’s daughter, Ellie, at her side, prepare julienned carrots for the kimchi, while Duane Lunde washes dishes nearby. (Austin American-Statesman/MCT)

AUSTIN, Texas ― Even though her mother is from South Korea, Abigail Lunde didn’t really like kimchi growing up.

“My mom would put a little bowl of water next to my plate and wash it off for me,” says Abigail Lunde, now 28, of the fermented side dish that almost every Korean (well, 95 percent, according to a recent survey) eats at least once a day.

“My mom wanted me to be Americanized,” Lunde says. “We would go back (to South Korea) every few years to visit, but I didn’t understand the culture. I don’t speak much Korean. The first Korean I learned to speak was ‘I don’t want any more, I’m full.’” Any time she’d cook with her grandmother, either her mom would have to translate or they’d communicate by pointing and repeating words that neither totally understood.

It wasn’t until Lunde was in college and bartending and working at sushi restaurants in Springfield, Missouri, most of which are owned by Korean families, that she really started to appreciate the culture.

Lunde started asking her mom to teach her how to make the kimchi that she’d started to crave.

When she met her husband, Duane, a Dallasite of Native American descent who dislikes all things sour and fermented, he hated kimchi, too. But after trying freshly made kimchi from his wife’s family on ramen noodles and rice, he was hooked.

Little did they know that within a few years, their world would revolve around two things: a baby girl named Ellie and a kimchi company that she inspired.

Fermented foodways

Fermented foods define cultures, but they also help connect them.

In Japan, they ferment rice and soybeans; in America, it’s hops, wheat, grapes or dairy. The smell of a cheese that is beloved in France might be enough to make someone from a neighboring country lose their lunch.

But pause before calling kimchi the Korean sauerkraut.

“It’s a good segue for us, but they are not the same thing,” says Duane Lunde. “Kimchi isn’t supposed to be like sauerkraut.” It’s not just the red pepper, garlic and ginger that set kimchi apart from sauerkraut. For one, historians think that people in China were first preserving cabbage in wine and that Genghis Khan probably brought the concept to Europeans about 1,000 years ago.

Unlike traditional sauerkraut, you don’t have to let kimchi ferment very long for the flavors to start to come together, and some people prefer it freshly made.

But the biggest difference might just be that kimchi can be made with just about any vegetable, including leafy greens like kale, root vegetables including turnips and vegetables that are actually fruits, like cucumbers and jalapenos.

“You make it with what you have,” Abigail Lunde says, which reflects the time periods in Korean history, including many years that her grandmother lived through, of not having enough.

Every family has its own technique and recipe. Some still bury the kimchi in pots to let it ferment, while others simply keep it in a refrigerator specifically designed for storing kimchi at the optimum temperature.

Abigail Lunde says that she’d grown so used to the way her family made kimchi that the commercially made kind with MSG, which is just about all you can find in Austin, wasn’t going to cut it.

She was making her own kimchi at home, but the idea to start a kimchi business didn’t come until after they’d been working at area farmers markets with Johnson’s Backyard Garden, the large organic farm east of Austin.

The Lundes fell in love with the community culture that the markets inspire, but they also realized that they were handling hundreds of pounds of produce perfect for making kimchi, including many vegetables like bok choy, mustard greens and Asian turnips and radishes that many American consumers don’t know what to do with.

The Lundes got married in summer 2012 and found out they were pregnant not long after. “Having a baby really lights the fire under your butt” to figure out what you’re going to do with your life, Abigail Lunde says.

Baby Ellie came last spring, and by the summer, they’d launched Oh Kimchi at the Barton Creek Farmers Market, which is something of an incubator for new products like theirs.

The kimchi was such a hit that they jumped from one farmers’ market to more than 10 in just three months, and in the past few weeks they have expanded beyond the Austin area to markets in New Braunfels and San Antonio.

In addition to the farmers’ markets, you can buy their kimchi, which starts at about $8 a jar, at both locations of Wheatsville Food Co-op, and the Lundes recently started shipping their kimchi, too. “I underestimated how much people would love it,” Duane Lunde says.

Kimchi isn’t just evolving in the jar; it’s popping up in unexpected ways all over the city.

One of the best-selling items on the menu at Chi’Lantro’s many area food trucks are their kimchi French fries, a dish that owner Jae Kim created to use up some of the extra kimchi he had in his truck at the end of the day.

Instead of simply putting kimchi on fries, Kim caramelizes the kimchi first to give it even more umami flavor and serves it with a variety of other toppings, including beef bulgogi, cilantro, sesame seeds, spicy mayo and cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses.

Austin-area restaurants including the ABGB and Jack Allen’s Kitchen have already started buying Oh Kimchi’s products for use in dishes like kimchi-topped bratwurst, kimchi micheladas, pulled pork sliders with kimchi and kimchi cheese grits.

Educating people about the versatility and variety of kimchi is one of the Lundes’ top priorities.

“People think it has to be super smelly to be kimchi, but it doesn’t have to be stinky or spicy,” Duane Lunde says. There’s even a whole category of white (or “mool” or “mul”) kimchis that don’t have any red paste, which the Lundes recently started making. “It’s kimchi for people who hate kimchi,” he says.

But one thing that almost all kimchis have in common is a high level of good-for-you probiotics, which boost your immune system and aid digestion. Some super fresh kimchi with a lot of lactic acid will even bubble as if it were carbonated when you first open the jar, and Duane Lunde says you don’t have to let the kimchi ferment for long to get those healthy bacteria growing.

The Lundes let their kimchis ferment at a commercial kitchen at Winfield Farm near Bastrop, which is where they also get much of their produce.

“You treat it like your kimchi baby,” he says. “We even call it our nursery.” A hands-on lesson Just before Christmas, the Lundes hosted a kimjang, a kimchi-making event not unlike a tamalada, in which many hands make light work of what can be a laborious process.

“Kimjang is a season, a party and a variety of kimchi,” Lunde says. A group will gather in winter, with enough soju to go around, and make enough kimchi for the season. (A piece of trivia about soju, an alcohol usually made with rice ― it is the top-selling spirit in the world, outpacing vodka, whiskey or rum.) “They’ll even host kimjang for charities,” Lunde says. It’s a tradition that just last year was added to Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list.

A few hours before the South Austin kimjang, Abigail Lunde salted about two dozen heads of napa cabbage, rubbing each leaf thoroughly before moving on to the next.

By the time the guests arrived, the cabbages already had shrunk to almost half their size. She rinsed the salt off each head, shook off the excess water and then started preparing the other ingredients for the kimchi.

Her mom, who was visiting from Dallas, helped puree ginger and countless bulbs of peeled garlic, while Abigail spread a tarp in the living room and set up the ingredients and tools: The cabbage and pureed aromatics, small sticks of carrots and daikon radishes, salt, sugar, ground red pepper flakes and several large plastic work tubs big enough to bathe their now 8-month-old daughter.

Wielding gloves and soju-charged gusto, we got to work, mixing large amounts of each ingredient by hand, asking for advice from the experts. “Do I need more garlic?” “Is this enough pepper?” we’d ask. “I don’t know. Why don’t you try it?” Lunde or her mom would advise.

Once the spicy sauce came together, we smeared it on the cabbage, making sure to touch every part of every leaf. “Don’t forget to push it all the way to the base,” Abigail Lunde reminded.

The cabbage started to absorb the bright red, fragrant liquid even before we wrapped one of the back leaves around to the front, which helped hold the wet leaves together while we moved on to the next cabbage baby to be tended.

Each of us worked one half of a cabbage at a time until our knees wouldn’t let us kneel on the floor anymore. The Lundes, having done all the prep work to get us here, were happy to let someone else be up to their elbows in red paste for a change. 

By Addie Broyles

(Austin American-Statesman)

(MCT Information Services)

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