Pickling Portland

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Choi’s Kimchi Company brings a fermented Korean staple to P-Town.

STORY AND PHOTO BY MATTIE JOHN BAMMAN

_jb15549Founded in 2011, Choi’s Kimchi Company makes its kimchis using a generations-old family recipe by founder Chong Choi and her son, Matt. “The earliest memory my mom always shares,” says Matt, “is the gimjang winter kimchi harvest in Korea. It’s a really busy time, and she’d be running around helping, and my grandmother would always have her taste the kimchi she was making and say, ‘What does it need? Salt? More ginger?’”

Immigrating to the United States when she was 25, Chong quickly earned a reputation in her community for making great kimchi, whether for friends or family or church events. Fundamentally, kimchi is a Korean spicy pickle, and it’s typically made by fermenting cabbage seasoned with Korean red chili pepper, ginger, garlic, and onion. Matt says there are 300 or so kimchi styles.

Kimchi is new to many American palates, but it’s about as common as ketchup in Korea. Portlanders have been quick to step out of their comfort zones to embrace the Choi family’s kimchi. In fact, the Portland Farmers Market swiftly and unanimously accepted Choi’s application, and on Chong’s first day at the market, despite thinking she’d only sell 15 or so jars, Chong and Matt sold out of 150 jars by noon.

“I think by not limiting our flavors or dumbing it down, we’ve had more success,” says Matt, and he’s not kidding about not dumbing it down. Unscrew a jar of Choi’s Radish Kimchi, and you’re greeted by the pungent scent of fermented radish funk. But one bite reveals sweet and fresh radish flavor pierced with onion, garlic, and chili spice.

Matt says his mom came up with the idea to make kimchi for retail when she couldn’t and quality kimchi in Portland. The Choi family operated a dry cleaners at the time, and Matt, armed with a newly minted degree in marketing from the University of Oregon, saw a gap in the market, which sealed the deal.

Using all local, sustainable, and non-GMO ingredients, Choi’s traditional Napa Kimchi is great for stir fries, fried rice, soup, and savory pancakes. The company also makes three other kimchis — Radish, White Napa, and Green Cabbage, which are more commonly eaten like pickles. Matt advises that when cooking, if you want your kimchi to have crunch, add it at the end. “But if you want a more nuanced kimchi flavor,” he says, “add it early on.”

As kimchi continues to develop fans, unorthodox uses have popped up. Choi’s Napa Kimchi tops hot dogs and hamburgers and supplies a spicy kick and tang to grilled cheese and quesadillas. And many, from Michelle Obama to Leonardo DiCaprio, tout kimchi’s health benefits. High in probiotic lactic acid bacteria, kimchi aids digestion — so much so that it has even been used by astronauts.

And beyond this, Choi’s kimchi tells another story. “Food offers an opportunity for immi- grants,” says Matt. “If you’re a Korean growing up in the U.S., your parents likely own a dry-cleaners or a mini-mart. That’s what my parents did until my mom started making kimchi. Call it the Portland pioneering spirit, I guess. I think this is the most meaningful work my mom can do.”

Mattie John Bamman is a culinary travel writer focused on the Pacific Northwest, Italy, and the Balkans. Wine, wilderness, and words brought him to Portland, where he regularly contributes to Edible Portland and other publications, including Northwest Travel & Life Magazine. Mattie is also the editor of Eater Portland.

KIMCHI JEON (KIMCHI PANCAKES)

_jb15491Provided by Choi’s Kimchi Company

Serves 6 | Total time 30 minutes

1 1/4 cups water
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup ground flax seed
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons kimchi juice (the “brine” that forms during fermentation and remains in a jar of kimchi)
1/2 chopped onion
12 ounces Choi’s Napa Kimchi (drained of all brine except for the 3 tablespoons called for above)
3 scallion stalks, cut into 2- to 3-inch lengths
Oil for pan frying

Prepare pancake batter by whisking the water, flour, flax seed, salt, and kimchi juice in a large mixing bowl. Stir the batter to blend thoroughly, adding water or kimchi juice until you have a batter that pours.

Combine the onion, kimchi, and scallion together, and mix well.

Add to the pancake batter and mix well.

Coat a large saute’ pan with oil and heat on medium to high.

Ladle some batter into the pan and spread it thinly and evenly to form a round shape.

Pan fry for a couple of minutes until the bottom becomes golden brown and crispy.

Turn it over and cook the other side until it also becomes golden brown and crispy.

Repeat for the remaining batter.

Cook’s Note: You can make your Kimchi Jeon whatever size you wish. You may also add optional ingredients such as pork, red bell peppers, or jalapeno. Using more fermented (older) kimchi will give the pancake a more flavorful taste.

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