THE LAST TIME we checked, we were not Korean. We haven’t started reading Hangul nor discovered that we’re actually descended from a palace maiden who lived in the Joseon Dynasty. But if we’re not, why are we suddenly so obsessed with kimchi? That sour-sweet-spicy-garlicky fermented cabbage that we’re eating with everything from instant noodles to omelettes and burgers?
Blame it on our steady diet of Korean dramas that kept us going during the Circuit Breaker, or the myriad food options touted on social media by a growing number of enterprising home-based businesses. Among them was kimchi – not the commercial supermarket variety (which were out of stock anyway) or by Korean restaurants, but the artisanal small batch recipes made by several Singaporeans – and one Korean – who are passionate about their kimchi and have earned their own followings as a result.
Yes, you might be wanting some kimchi and since July last year, Zeng Wanting (yes that’s her name) has been making it full-time by hand for an appreciative audience. The former retail/event management professional and Korean drama fan started making kimchi in her postgraduate university days in England when she was homesick for Asian food and was given some homemade kimchi by her Vietnamese classmate. “After that I became obsessed with it, learning how to make it from YouTube and experimenting with different vegetables in the UK.”
Although she stopped making it when she returned, she picked it up again two years ago after tasting a failed kimchi dish made by her husband. Their final recipe was derived from “studying kimchi masters’ recipes, reading scientific studies, visiting the kimchi museum in Korea, attending cooking classes and eating it everywhere from restaurants to specialty stalls in the markets.”
Then Covid-19 struck, and Circuit Breaker, which was when “sales went through the roof”, by her small business standards. “We couldn’t keep up with orders despite making kimchi for 14 to 16 hours every day!”
Sales have stabilised since Phase 2, although it is still busy for them. Their repertoire includes two kinds of cabbage kimchi, radish and scallion kimchi as well as cuttlefish and jellyfish banchan. She does not use MSG at all, while going easy on sugar and salt.
“Our signature cabbage kimchi is made the traditional way and takes 10 days from start to finish. We send it out when it is ripe but not sour, and as it ages you get the benefits of the naturally-occurring probiotics and a balanced flavour profile.”
Currently, she’s the sole kimchi maker, although her husband, Tim Chen, teaches filmmaking but plans to take a sabbatical so he can help out. Indeed, they may not be ‘wanting’ for customers but their perfectionist streak is what drives them to keep getting better.
To order, go to wantingkimchi.com
Despite Singaporeans’ professed love for kimchi, the real hardcore, sour and long-aged kimchi is still an acquired taste. That’s why Matthias Lee of Lee’s Kimchi believes he has developed the right balance of sweetness and tanginess that has earned his fledgling home business a loyal following.
Mr Lee is a former Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef who left to join the aviation industry, but given the current downturn has gone back to his first love. It’s just as well that he loves kimchi as well, starting from his days studying in Melbourne, “where my Korean housemates would have homemade kimchi everyday with their meals, and I eventually became hooked on it too.” His recipe is based on his friend’s grandmother, who incidentally gave him her seal of approval after tasting his version.
A lot of R&D went into developing the right method, says Mr Lee. “It involved sourcing the right ingredients, developing the right texture and flavours of the kimchi paste and most important, practising the right fermentation techniques.”
While he’s adapted the recipe for Singapore palates, he does get orders for aged kimchi, which he personally prefers. “The longer fermentation produces more complex and pronounced flavour notes, and is more tangy. It’s better for cooking in stews and is great with meats and carbs.”
The current focus is on cabbage kimchi although he also does radish kimchi. He launched Lee’s Kimchi during Circuit Breaker, and with more people cooking at home, he saw a demand for kimchi given its long storage life (“We share advice on how customers can age the kimchi to suit their taste”) and versatility.
What started out as a fascination with making good kimchi for personal consumption has since become “a platform for us to promote our homemade kimchi and its benefits”. He adds, “We’re obsessed with getting it right and only selling what we would be proud to serve to our family and friends.”
To order, go to leeskimchi.com
CHAE’S HOMEMADE KIMCHI
Connie Chua (Chae is her name in Korean) is just your typical full time homemaker who made kimchi as a hobby years ago after learning the basic recipe from a friend. “I tweaked it to my own liking which is slightly sweet and crunchy, which is how Singaporeans like it.”
But she is also adept at customising her recipes, which is how she turned her hobby into a business by chance a few years ago.
“I had been giving my kimchi free to family and friends but I started selling to someone who was diabetic. My business grew from the Singapore Keto Facebook Group overnight.” She specialises in fresh kimchi which is sent to customers within a day or two of making it. “People who want it sour can leave it in the fridge to ferment. Fully fermented kimchi is better for cooking. But as a side dish, fresh is better. Leaving it for a week or two in the fridge is the best as all the spices are fully incorporated.”
Ms Chua does a range of MSG-free kimchi which includes vegan (without fermented shrimp) or keto (without the glutinous rice flour mixture that is commonly used in the recipe) as well as non-spicy versions. She’s even done organic kimchi, and does special orders so long as she has the time. Business boomed for her during Circuit Breaker, when she was making kimchi everyday instead of her usual weekly batch. “I sold more than 150kg in a week.” But now with Phase 2, things have settled down for her. “As I’m a full time housewife without a helper, I try to limit the number of orders. I usually keep one day a week free for making kimchi.”
Although she can see the potential in the business, “I have no intention of expanding,” she says. “I prefer the personal touch I have with my customers, where we can communicate directly.”
To order, check out her Facebook page or call 9637-2425
If you’ve been wowed by the slick videos of Jin Kimchi on Facebook, you’ve also seen the handiwork of Jack Chu, who runs his own video marketing agency. The Korean national, who has been living in Singapore for the past 12 years with his parents, started the homebased Jin Kimchi during the Circuit Breaker as a way to bond with his mother and to share her kimchi with Singaporean food lovers.
Unlike the more tangy versions, Jin Kimchi has a mellow sweetness that’s tasty enough to eat on its own and makes a great side dish. “I adapted the recipe to suit Singaporean taste buds better,” says Mr Chu, whose family runs a Korean beauty salon business here.
“The original recipe tends to be more sour and not as sweet, whereas ours (Jin’s) is sweet and savoury which we call geotjeori or fresh kimchi. We offer two variations – cabbage and radish – for now. I’ve always wanted to share my mum’s kimchi because it’s simply too delicious (to keep for ourselves). And we don’t add MSG at all.”
He reckons that kimchi has always been popular in Singapore but became even more so with the Korean drama craze and of course, Circuit Breaker.
“The business is still doing alright and it’s a way for my mum and I to spend time together. We are home-based for now, but we are looking into expanding our production facilities and our team.”
To order, go to jin-kimchi.com
This article was originally published in The Business Times.