Posted : 2014-07-13 16:56
Updated : 2014-07-14 09:56

'Grand master' explores new possibilities in kimchi

Grand Master Kim Soon-ja explains about kimchi, its diversity and health benefits, at the Kimchi Theme Park in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province.

By Kim Ji-soo

She is a master of kimchi, and not just the traditional kind made of Chinese cabbage and radish. Kim Soon-ja, 60, also uses a wide array of other produce such as broccoli, mangosteen, seaweed and fresh mugwort and her unique take on kimchi has earned her some 20 patents.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs named her the first Kimchi Grand Master in 2007, and the Ministry of Employment and Labor recognized her as a Korea Master Hand in 2012.

"I worked very hard for the titles," said Kim. "When I earned them, I was elated but at the same time, felt the burden of living up to the names."

In a rapid-fire delivery, she expressed her passion for kimchi, which she, a native of central Chungcheong Province, believes is a dish that provides health benefits and brings people together.

Since she was a child, she has always been allergic to a number of foods, such as beef, banana and coffee, but she has never had problems with kimchi.

"I remember, as a child, I and my siblings would pick what we wanted to eat from a variety of ‘bossam' or wrapped kimchi — some would pick the bossam with chestnuts, some would pick that with pine nuts and our mothers would pick what's left," said Kim.

"I wanted everyone to have their equal share of bossam, so I made Mini Roll Bossam Kimchi," she said. She bought some of those mini-rolls during the interview at the Kimchi Theme Park in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province for The Korea Times staff to taste. The theme park, located in a traditional Korean house, holds kimchi-learning experiences for both aspiring and advanced kimchi makers, as well as foreigners ( As the summer holiday season is in full swing, the theme park is packed with visitors.

Koreans might find Kim's Mini Roll Bossam Kimchi just the right amount of hot, but non-Koreans might find it too spicy. For the latter, Kim recommends her "Kkannip Yangbaechoo Mari Kimchi" or Sesame Leaf Cabbage Mari Kimchi; "Chiza Miyeok Mari Kimchi" or Gardenia Seed and Seaweed Roll Kimchi; and the "Miyeok Kimchi" or Seaweed Kimchi. The "mari" can be translated into roll. They are among the popular products of her kimchi manufacturing firm, Hansung Food, founded in 1986.

The bite-sized, roll-shaped kimchi are the perfect appetizer or side dish for virtually any meal in any cuisine. The kimchi with sesame leaf and cabbage is crunchy and popular with Americans in Korea as they like sesame leaf and cabbage, she said. It is neither salty nor spicy, and uniquely has no smell. "Also, the cabbage which is good for the stomach is used in making about 80 percent of medicine to cure or alleviate stomach problems," she said.

From top left, clockwise: "Mini Roll Bossam Kimchi," "Miyeok Kimchi," "Chiza Miyeok Mari Kimchi" and "Kkannip-Yangbaechoo Mari Kimchi" patented and produced by Kim Soon-ja and her firm Hansung Food.
/ Korea Times photos by Kim Ji-soo

The fresh and colorful kimchi with Gardenia seed and seaweed is fresh on the palate, where the Gardenia seed is known to have detoxifying benefits. The seaweed one is for those who do not like color in their kimchi and is a delicious comfort food.

The basic kimchi Kim learned to make from her mother and grandmother has a fiery red color but is actually mild-tasting, neither too salty nor spicy.

"Oh, I would like to taste them, but it's a pity that I have to head somewhere," said Kim, showing just how she loves the staple dish

She said she loved kimchi so much as a child that she would urge her mother and grandmother to make more. She said those "gimjang" or kimchi-making days were the happiest moments in her childhood. The UNESCO last year recognized gimjang as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity List.

She started her business when she learned that hotels complained about the poor taste of their kimchi. At the time, the majority of Korean households still made their own annual stock of kimchi, and commercial kimchi makers were few. The company, which started with just one employee, has grown to 500 employees and now exports to 12 nations including Japan, Malaysia and the United States (Hawaii). This year, Hansung Food aims to earn 50 billion won in export revenue.

Since Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Seoul in early July during which he and President Park Geun-hye agreed to work together to pave the way for Korean kimchi exports to China, Kim has received countless congratulatory calls.

"Well, that news gave us hope. We (Korea) have been importing about 280,000 tons of kimchi from China annually," Kim said.

Her kimchi business has not always been smooth-sailing. She remembered how people at international food fairs ignored her stalls, but interest in her products began to increase from the mid- to late 2000s.

According to Kim, kimchi is a dish that is first preserved in salt water, after which the water poured out and various ingredients, includingsalted seafood, which contains lactic acid bacteria, are added. The dish is left to ferment for some time, during which the lactic acid bacteria increase. Kimchi is rich in dietary fiber, vitamins and known to aid digestion.

The length of fermentation varies according to the ingredients used and the season, said Kim.

"For example, if you make cucumber kimchi these days, you would need to ferment it only a day before you can eat it. As for Chinese cabbage kimchi and radish cube kimchi, you have to ferment them for two weeks before eating them," Kim said.

While Kim wants to maintain the traditional essence of kimchi, she looks forward to developing it to accommodate the tastes of people from other countries as well as the tastes of future generations.

For example, she mentioned "geotjeori" or fresh vegetable that is made from cabbage tossed in garlic, chili powder, ground sesame and oil. In addition, she has already developed unique kimchi products such as chocolat-covered and frozen-dried ones, which she hopes to put on store shelves soon.

But whatever the ingredients may be, good kimchi should meet certain standards, Kim said.

"The main ingredient should enfold the supplementary ingredients smoothly such that no one particular taste, like garlic, stands out," she said.

She said to this day, she cannot believe the amount of scientific knowledge that she has accumulated in kimchi-making. She wants to pass this knowledge on by founding a kimchi college, which would help her spread the tradition behind kimchi, a dish that forms the foundation of a Korean meal and that strengthens both the body and mind.

The Kimchi Theme Park could be a stepping stone to founding the college.

"I hope to found the first kimchi college in the world in my lifetime ," Kim said.

"It would offer short-term, mid-term and long-term programs that chefs from every country can take to master kimchi-making," she said.

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