As a young tastings editor at Wine & Spirits Magazine in 2003, I remember the Bordeaux 2000 futures well. This was the tasting I was excited for: the long-awaited first growths. These wines would become the legendary, auction-worthy bottles, precious to collectors and, eventually, some of the most expensive wines in the world.
Among our top New York City panelists, there were sommeliers using their familiar words to describe the wines—fruit scents and flavors of cassis, blackberry, dark cherry, vanilla, spice and licorice. But as I took my first whiff of these coveted red wines, I distinctly smelled remnants of roasted soy beans—the wine was redolent of soy sauce. Hello! Did anyone else get that? Sadly, no.
My earliest memories of food were shaped in Korea in my childhood, observing and watching my maternal grandmother cook—the pungent smell of kimchi, gochujang and daenjang (fermented chile and soy bean pastes), soy sauce—the key anchors of homemade sauces kept in our backyard to ferment in assorted onggi (clay pots). For a six-year-old, those pungent aromas that pervaded our house—the scent of roasted soy beans and the musty smell of fermentation— were the anchor that shaped my sense of smell and taste.
Two years later, when my family immigrated to the U.S., we adopted a new immigrant family ritual: dual grocery-shopping trips. We spent entire weekends shopping for food, driving 20 miles to Korea Town for Korean ingredients and then going to the neighborhood American supermarket. As I was all too eager to quickly learn English and become an American, I was also aware of how different Korean foods were, especially kimchi. It was so foreign—spicy, stinky and pungent. We ate kimchi with every family meal, as we had in Korea, but here I felt shame around it. My mother had cautioned me that kimchi may be offensive for non-Koreans (a.k.a. Americans) and that it was the one food not to share or eat in front of others (non-Koreans). I should not take kimchi for lunch.
It wasn’t until after college, on a three-month backpacking trip through Europe, that I was introduced to the food and wine cultures of Italy and France. I had thought, growing up in the US, that eating kimchi and pungent, spicy Korean food might have ruined my palate, spoiled my sense of smell. That it might have inhibited my ability to taste the subtle, nuanced flavors of fine European foods, let alone appreciate the aromas of a fine wine. And yet I found myself drawn to the open-air food markets in each provincial town, to taste the local cheeses, cured meats and wines. Somehow, I felt a connection between these food traditions and my childhood experiences in Korea.
But it was hard to explain, and when I returned to the US, I continued to focus on European foods—first working at a French restaurant, later managing a wine portfolio and working a grape harvest in Italy. It wasn’t until the 2008 Recession that I changed course completely, launching Mother-in-Law’s Kimchi. I named the business after my mother’s Korean restaurant and, after making a lot of kimchi, began to realize that the defining characteristic wasn’t the spice, but the tanginess/sour notes, akin to acidity in wine. The more I tasted kimchi, the more I began to taste the multi-dimensional aspects of its flavors that stem from fermentation, the same transformation grapes undergo that results in a delicious glass of wine.
When I started to package kimchi in Mason jars to sell at the farmers markets, I soon discovered that the kimchi often would continue to actively ferment inside the jars and expand, creating a kimchi-juice-and-cabbage explosion once their metal lids were open. It took some time to train customers how to open the jars.
But once that optimally fermented kimchi was out of the jar, its texture would tingle on the tongue like a sparkling wine. It was a light-bulb moment for me: With food, kimchi acted much like sparkling wine. It is the Champagne of Pickles.
I began to organize kimchi and wine tastings, as well as kimchi and cheese tastings, to explore the commonalities in fermented foods. I’ve done tastings with our House Napa Cabbage kimchi—long strips of napa cabbage with chile flakes, garlic, ginger, fish sauce and beef bone broth—and it has worked with sparkling grüner veltliner as well as Beaujolais Nouveau. As it turns out, what I smelled as soy sauce in that first-growth Bordeaux wasn’t a silly amateur mistake. All fermented foods have a common thread if you smell them carefully enough.
This story appears in the print issue of December 2021.
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