By Laura Ohata
Northwest Asian Weekly
When people think of Korean food, the first thing that comes to mind is “kimchi.” The word kimchi means “pickled vegetables,” and there are many different varieties, depending on the ingredients used. The most famous type is “paechu,” made with Napa cabbage, garlic, red pepper, and sea salt.
Paechu kimchi is only one of many dishes served in a labor-intensive Korean meal. Each night, the family cook prepares rice, soup, a main course, and a constellation of side dishes called “banchan.” Tradition aside, few families have time to prepare all of the food presented at the dinner table, so they rely on store-bought kimchi to supplement the meal.
“I don’t want to make kimchi at home,” says Hyoshin Park, who lives in Sammamish. A busy housewife, Park taxis her children to numerous after-school activities, in addition to preparing the family meals. Purchasing kimchi at the store allows her to focus on the main course, and other side dishes. When asked where she buys kimchi, Park says the South Gate Oriental Grocery is one of her favorite purveyors, because they use good sea salt and fresh ingredients
“My mother comes from Jeolla-do, an island in Korea well-known for kimchi,” says Danny Jeong, who has worked at South Gate Oriental Grocery since his brother took control of the family business 12 years ago. “Our mother taught her younger brother how to make all of her recipes. She taught him all of the ingredients, so our uncle has been making all of our side dishes for the past four years. We make kimchi every day.” When asked about the biggest challenge of running a small grocery store, Jeon says, “[It’s] the competition. There used to be a lot of small stores, then H-Mart came in and they all went out of business. Now, we’re left because people use us like a convenience store.”
Located in Factoria, South Gate Oriental Grocery draws customers from Bellevue and Issaquah, but some customers drive in from as far away as Spokane and Yakima just to buy their side dishes. In addition to Korean customers, around 30 percent to 40 percent of the shoppers hail from Japan, China, and other countries that consume pickled vegetables similar to kimchi.
Growing competition from big stores like H-Mart has advantages and disadvantages for the kimchi-eating consumer. “In the short-term, places like H-mart are great, because they offer a wider variety of fresh products at a lower price,” says Donglok Kim, an electrical engineer at Samsung. “In the long-run, however, if they don’t have any competition, the prices will go higher.” Kim believes that South Gate Oriental Grocery has survived a long time because of its convenient location.
Kim’s favorite kimchi is the one that his wife makes at home. “The saltiness is just right to my taste. I don’t like it too salty,” says Kim. Even so, she does not make kimchi that often. “Kimchi takes a lot of work to make, and you can’t store it for a long time,” says Kim. “People used to store kimchi in large jars underground during the cold winter months. Today, there are special refrigerators to store kimchi at a consistently cool temperature.”
Young Park is the head chef at H-Mart in Federal Way, and her assistant chef is Myungsoo Kim. “We make kimchi by hand, the old-fashioned way,” says Myungsoo Kim. “Ms. Park uses salted shrimp and ground onion in her recipe to make the kimchi taste fresh and add depth to the flavor.”
As a housewife, Hyoshin Park prefers shopping at South Gate Oriental Grocery, yet she still shops at H-Mart. “Each kimchi has its own unique flavor. You want to change the flavor, so every time I finish a bottle of kimchi, I go to a different shop.” In the end, whether you make kimchi at home, buy it in a small shop, or grab a jar at a large store, there is one thing upon which everyone agrees. When it comes to kimchi, variety is still the spice of life. (end)
Laura Ohata can be reached at email@example.com.
Where to buy kimchi:
South Gate Oriental Grocery & Gifts
3900 Factoria Blvd. S.E., Bellevue
3301 184th St. S.W., Lynnwood
31217 Pacific Hwy. S., Federal Way