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The Kimchi Game

Competing recipes, regional pride, and a short shelf life make for a lively market.



It's just past kimjang right now--the time when many traditional Korean households bury a supply of spiced cabbage in the backyard to help sustain them through the winter. Kwang and Yang Lee, owners of Ravenswood's Chicago Kimchee, aka Korea Kimchee (and briefly the Kimchi Museum), are supervising their two employees as they plunge their rubber-gloved arms elbow deep into a lavalike mixture of powdered red pepper, ginger, garlic, sugar, shrimp paste, fish sauce, and MSG.

Kimchi, a pungent, fermented vegetable dish, is a Korean staple, eaten at nearly every meal from the arrival of baby teeth. Though some people still bury their cabbage and others buy special refrigerators to age homemade kimchi, most don't have time to make it themselves anymore, so they rely on commercial producers like the Lees. Now that store-bought kimchi is available year-round, most Koreans don't stash kimjang kimchi away either. But the Lees are pretty traditional. They cut, mix, and jar their kimchi by hand, and they don't use preservatives.

The Lees have raised three kids on cabbage. Kwang Lee was a military man in South Korea--a lieutenant colonel--and a black belt in tae kwon do. After 22 years he retired and became an architect, but by 1986 the Lees had had enough of the tumultuous South Korean political situation. Kwang brought his family to Chicago, where his older brother owned a hot dog stand, and found work with a produce wholesaler on Fulton Street. Within a year he'd bought out the owner and had begun to expand, eventually moving up near Lawrence and Pulaski so he could be closer to the Korean community. When business took a downward turn, Kwang left produce for the kimchi trade, purchasing Chicago Kimchee from its founder in 1990. The Lees moved to a gray-brick industrial space next to the Brown Line and prospered enough that their son, Jay, felt comfortable leaving to join the U.S. air force, where he served as a military policeman.

As Kwang whacks football-size heads of napa cabbage with a butcher's knife and pushes the pieces into a giant plastic tub filled with salted water, his employees wash the leaves that have soaked overnight, preparing to mix them with sauce in a large stainless steel sink. They squeak around in rubber boots and red-stained plastic aprons worn over yellow rain slickers. It's cold inside, but the air is sharp with the smell of the fuming spice paste. Kimchi can be made with any kind of vegetable--radish, seaweed, cucumber, bean sprouts--and sometimes seafood, like oysters and squid. Most commonly, though, it's cabbage. Traditionally the concoction is packed in earthen jars and buried: the temperature is cold enough to slow down fermentation but not low enough to freeze the kimchi. This process produces the lactic acid that gives the dish its sour taste and preserves its vitamins. A steady diet of kimchi is said to slow aging and relieve a variety of ailments including intestinal disorders, cancer, obesity, and diabetes.

A recent column in the Korea Herald announced that there are about 187 varieties of kimchi. "Koreans started inventing new kimchi because of their egos," theorized the writer. "They wanted to have a new kimchi for their own province, city, county, village, etc. and wanted to brag about it to the rest of the country." Generally kimchi from North Korea is lighter, less salty, and juicier, while South Korean kimchi is made more often with salted fish sauce and is heavier and spicier. Different recipes use different cuts of vegetables--radish tops, say, or whole cabbage heads stuffed with spices. Kimchi also differs by season. In the old days, when the kimjang kimchi had soured, people developed recipes using the spring's young vegetables and went lighter on the chilies and garlic.

Kwang Lee believes there are more than 300 varieties of kimchi. He makes 18 of them from various cuts of radish, cabbage, chives, cucumbers, and green onions. He'll also tinker with his recipes for special orders.

When a customer places an order, Kwang and one or two employees cut the vegetables. There are machines that can process the cabbage, but Kwang cuts by hand because he believes automation damages the vegetables. He's faster than a machine anyway, says Jay. The vegetables are soaked overnight in the salted water, which softens them and makes them easy to pack, and at the same time preserves them and primes them to take on the spices. The next morning the crew will wash them three times and toss them with spice paste spiked with the family's own fish sauce--salted anchovies aged for one year, then boiled and strained into five-gallon plastic containers. The Lees use about 125 gallons of the stuff annually.

The kimchi sits in the sink for a few hours before it gets packed into jars and refrigerated overnight. In the afternoon Kwang, or sometimes Jay, delivers the previous day's orders to a modest list of groceries and restaurants. The Lees, devout Presbyterians, also donate large buckets of it to a number of Korean churches.

Kimchi is temperamental stuff--its shelf life can vary wildly depending on a number of factors. You want your cabbage to turn, but only to a point--and where that point happens to be is a matter of individual taste. Jay says older folks prefer the flavor of strongly fermented kimchi, while younger generations like it fresh. But let it ferment too long and it becomes too sour for even the most iron-stomached old-timer.

The rate at which fermentation occurs changes according to temperature; naturally, it happens faster in the summer and slower in the winter, which partly accounts for recipes that change with the season. At room temperature fermentation starts within 24 hours. In a refrigerator it occurs in two or three days. When households make their own kimchi they can time its production and consumption according to their preferences. Some commercial producers try to curb the process with preservatives, which increase shelf life but inhibit fermentation. When it's mass-produced, kimchi can't be all things to all people.

The Lees had seven employees in the summer of 1996, but more players were entering the local kimchi market and competition became fierce. When the weather got hot, Chicago Kimchee's cabbage began to ferment faster than that of their competitors, says Jay. That made him suspect the other companies were doctoring their spices. Sometimes he buys competitors' kimchi and keeps track of how fast it ages. He's convinced they use preservatives, even though it may not say so on the jar. "When you see the same jar sitting there week after week," he says, "you know something's not right.

"My dad doesn't like to compete," continues Jay. "That's one of the reasons he got out of the produce business. The reason people compete is to make money, right? He doesn't want to lower himself to those standards. My dad is more into producing something he can be proud of, something he can put his name on. We're not rich. We don't really care about becoming richer. My parents are more into going to heaven than anything. If you compete with other companies you're just going to put yourself down to their level. You don't want to commit any sins."

Chicago Kimchee struggled for a few years after that summer, so Kwang brought on a former computer salesman to manage things for a couple years. "My dad hired him hoping he could revitalize the business," says Jay. The man wanted to distribute Kwang's kimchi in resealable plastic bags that were supposed to regulate fermentation and keep the product fresh longer. The idea never took off. "Koreans are extremely traditional and they're afraid to try something new," says Jay. "That's why it never picked up." Cardboard boxes of the bags are still stacked up on pallets in the factory.

The manager also wanted to build an unlikely tourist attraction in the company's front office. He hung a sign over the door advertising a "Kimchi Museum." Perhaps he was taking a cue from a similar attraction that has moved among three South Korean cities for 17 years (it's currently in Seoul), but even today the Lees aren't quite clear on the concept.

"I came back from the service and said, 'What the hell is that?'" says Jay. "My dad didn't have any clue." Sightseers were shooed away, told there was no kimchi museum or that the museum was "closed." The sign stayed up for a few years, but Jay says no one ever got a tour.

Jay's in law school now and doesn't plan to take over the business. He says his parents may retire one day and become missionaries. But until he graduates, they'll stay in kimchi. "The only reason they're still doing it is because of me," he says. "It's Korean tradition for the son to take care of the parents. As soon as I'm financially secure I'll take care of them." Then Yang will make the family's kimchi at home.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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