By Felicia Feaster for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Like the Vietnamese hot sauce Sriracha that popped up with startling regularity in chefs’ dishes in 2011, the savory Korean fermented vegetable dish, kimchee, is proving to be the go-to condiment of 2012.
Suddenly, kimchee is everywhere, showing up on food truck tacos and in food-fad central, the Trader Joe’s refrigerated case.
Atlanta chefs are blending kimchee into Southern classics like grits at Empire State South, melding it with collard greens at Two Urban Licks, serving kimchee as an oyster garnish or alongside duck and green onion hoe cakes at Food 101.
Richard Blais’ Flip Burger Boutique has featured a Korean barbecue burger garnished with a kimchee ketchup. Guy Wong at the Japanese izakaya on Edgewood Avenue, Miso Izakaya, serves a pork kimchee rice topped with a fried egg. Meehan’s Public House chef Jordan Wakefield plants his sesame-crusted ahi tuna on a mattress of kimchee and Georgia peanuts, blending the flavors of Asia and the South into one dish.
Indicative of a new hybrid cuisine mixing regional and more exotic flavors, kimchee is the new coleslaw, sauerkraut or – as many chefs put it – chowchow of the global South. Kimchee typifies the fascinating complexity of Atlanta’s food scene. And it’s hard to think of an ingredient that better represents Atlanta’s unique, culturally rich culinary diversity.
Empire State South owner and chef Hugh Acheson sees kimchee as emblematic of Atlanta’s mix of old South and new. “There is a kinship with chowchow and the like in Southern foodways,” Acheson said of kimchee’s resemblance to the pickled vegetable relish chowchow, a staple of the Southern supper table.
But Atlanta is more and more a hybrid of the South and other cultures. “The Asian influence on our culture is happening big time, and kimchee has a place in that evolution,” Acheson said.
Empire State South executive chef Ryan Smith creates a kimchee rice grits dish with pork belly that typifies the blend of the South and other cultures.
“To me, the dish takes kimchee as an expression of Buford Highway, mixes it with the tradition of middlin’ rice [broken kernel Carolina Gold rice], tops it with the ever-present pork on the stage of Southern food, adds the garnish of roasted peanuts that bridge cultures and then finishes with a pickle of radish, ubiquitous to both Asian and Southern foodways,” Acheson said.
Acheson’s kimchee includes Napa cabbage, smoked paprika, lime juice, salted shrimp and scallions combined and allowed to ferment for three days.
For Tyler Brown, the executive chef at Nashville’s Capitol Grille in the Hermitage Hotel, the prevalence of kimchee on Atlanta menus is obvious.
“I think in Atlanta it makes sense because you have Buford Highway and that whole influence there,” Brown said of that one-stop destination for fans of Asian cuisine. “It is a real institution of Atlanta.”
Making kimchee involves preserving a mix of vegetables – most often including some kind of cabbage – in salt. It has been made for thousands of years in Korea, most likely to preserve vegetables through the winter. In ancient times, the fermentation process, often involving burying earthenware jars in the ground, might last for months or even years.
Contemporary chefs tend to ferment their kimchee for a far more truncated two to five days. A savory, pungent, deliciously tart dish, kimchee can be made from a variety of ingredients, from Napa cabbage to cucumbers to radishes, and often seasoned with garlic, salt, vinegar, chile peppers and other spices.
The ingredients are as changeable as a sandwich filling, but consistently so packed with vitamins and low-fat goodness that a 2008 Health magazine article named kimchee one of the world’s healthiest foods. Kimchee contains the beneficial bacteria lactobacilli – also found in yogurt – which aids in digestion.
Enough of a fan to roadshow his kimchee-making process in Atlanta, Brown recently offered a kimchee tutorial at the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival. He, too, extols the health benefits of this staple of the Korean dining table. “It’s so good for you,” confirmed Brown, “with the probiotics. And it’s super high in vitamin C and vitamin A.”
At Capitol Grille, Brown likes to serve his kimchee alongside charcuterie as part of a hunter’s plate or atop a homemade hot dog. “It’s crisp, it’s satisfying, you get that umami; the saltiness I crave. It’s just very comforting.”
One of kimchee’s primary benefits is its versatility. The ingredients are interchangeable and often adapted to the season.
Food 101’s executive chef Justin Keith replaces the familiar Napa cabbage with local green cabbage and adds shaved carrots, chopped green onion and radish. Flavorings for Keith’s kimchee include Korean chili powder, Korean hot pepper paste, fish sauce, salted shrimp, fresh ginger and rice vinegar.
Two Urban Licks chef Cameron Thompson serves a Korean beef taco with his own housemade Southern spin on kimchee with collard greens that he marinates in a mix of salt, brown sugar, red pepper paste, fish sauce and Vietnamese chili-garlic sauce.
But all the talk of blending Atlanta’s diverse cultures and culinary traditions on a plate would mean very little if it weren’t for the taste. And that is one of kimchee’s most endearing qualities.
“I love the flavors and the crisp texture of the kimchee,” Keith said. “The complex layers of spice and slightly briny flavors really play on your taste buds. It’s spicy, yet at the same time refreshing. Any given time of the day, I can just pull a jar out of the fridge and have a few bites.”