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Before Kimchi Was Cool, My Parents Could Hardly Find a Jar in New York City

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These days, it seems like you never stop hearing about kimchi. Whether it’s red or white, made with Napa cabbage or daikon, kimchi is like the new kid in school: Everyone has realized how “cool” it really is, and no one can get enough.

But this kimchi has an entirely different reputation than the kimchi I grew up with.

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My parents arrived to New York from South Korea in 1973, as my father began his residency at a hospital in Brooklyn and my mother began working towards her master’s degrees at Pratt Institute. They were not the first of our family to come—my aunt had already been working as an anesthesiologist in Manhattan, where she lived in a small apartment on the Upper West Side. This was a time, in the wake of the Immigration Reform Act of 1965, when immigration was on fantastic rise in the United States—and new cuisines followed many new American families.

Mom's Kimchi
Mom's Kimchi

The soul of Korean cooking, kimchi was still little-known, let alone widely sold, in New York City. One could buy a small, expensive jar in a Manhattan store that just happened to have some in stock, or choose the economical approach my parents did. Because—with their busy schedules and limited storage space—neither was willing to make it, they would resort to the best alternative: straining sauerkraut and adding hot sauce. My uncle, who also came to live in the US, tried his hand at making his own kimchi however he could with watercress and radishes.

Though kimchi was named the official food of the 1988 World Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, I’ve heard stories from Korean families about the negative reactions it received. Some remembered being asked at their workplace to leave the room if kimchi, with its strong, fermented garlic smell, was in their lunch. This is certainly a far cry from the response one receives today when eating kimchi or storing it in the refrigerator. I’m shocked at the growing numbers of American children and their families who now embrace kimchi in their homes.

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Even just a few years ago, my parents, like many Korean-Americans in the tri-state area, would make the monthly venture over to Flushing, Queens or the Korean megamarts in New Jersey for their supply of Asian groceries. But now, they can pick up a jar of kimchi at the local grocery store in Westchester. There are whole stores devoted to selling kimchi in the borough where they once lived, and my parents also it remarkable how many independent American kimchi businesses are upping the marketing ante.

It’s even more amazing to them to not only see that many restaurants have kimchi on their menus, but also that establishments like Whole Foods and the American Museum of Natural History in New York are offering kimchi-making workshops. Once upon a time, kimchi was hard to find and, often, reviled; now it’s everywhere, seemingly loved by more people than before.

How did kimchi, since the start of the new millennium, come to be a “breakout star” among Americans outside of Korean communities? Along with a growing population of Koreans and Korean descendants living in the United States (1.5 million in 2017), there has also been a concerted effort on the part of the Korean government to popularize Korean culture and exports in the US. In 2012, the interest in Korean culture reached a high of $4.6 billion in revenue. And with eaters placing more attention on probiotics, good gut bacteria, fermentation, and vegetables, kimchi took its place on the American mainstream culinary map.

Much of the recent buzz around kimchi could also be credited to well-known chefs celebrating it in their food. L.A.’s Roy Choi, of course, is the godfather of the kimchi taco, but many other restaurants across others—from 610 Magnolia in Louisville to Little Goat Diner in Chicago to Emmy Squared in Brooklyn—continue to campaign for kimchi in both its traditional and contemporary forms. Artisanal manufacturers, like Contraband Ferments, Simply Seoul Kitchen, Mama O’s Premium, Mother-In-Law’s Kimchi, and Kimchi Kooks, also continue to grow their kimchi brands.

The availability and varieties of kimchi that now exist in the US have left my parents amazed at how far their humble food has come. Sure, they might scoff at kimchi on pizza or in tacos, but they still get a kick and a giggle out of seeing how that part of their culture has become more widely accepted.

Though the food world continues to buzz with the joy of kimchi-fying everything but the kitchen sink, in my own family’s kitchen, we’re returning to recipes that came from a seemingly forgotten place and time. When I asked my mom how she learned to make kimchi, she simply looked at me, and blinking her eyes, said, “I do not remember. Maybe my mother or grandmother taught me when I was very young.”

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Family-made kimchi has entered a new phase in our lives. It’s now made in a way that adheres to the dietary needs of my parents and relatives and that simplifies time and space (and that’s necessary even with our separate kimchi fridge). But despite these changes, kimchi continues to be a staple in my own kitchen and recipes. It’s astounding that despite all the shifts in our home, health, and family over the past four decades, kimchi is still here—and now, known by my non-Korean friends and clients.

For what it’s worth, it took me years to really figure out the importance of kimchi to my family—and many other Korean families—in our American life. In true kimchi fashion, it's only become more significant and more present with age.

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Caroline Choe's Kimchi Mac & Cheese

Df84bd2b 6eb3 491d b599 f17bc8daa581  fb avatar Caroline Choe
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Serves 6 to 8
  • 1 pound spiral pasta (I favor using cavatappi/cellentani)
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 4 ounces spicy napa cabbage kimchi, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground mustard powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
  • 1 pound extra sharp cheddar cheese, grated
  • 1/2 pound Gruyère, grated
  • 3 tablespoons pasta water (reserved from cooking)
  • crumbled bacon and chopped scallions (optional)

Are there any foods you were eating with your family before they started "trending"? Share with us in the comments below.