As a Korean-Canadian growing up in Ottawa, not a lot of people seemed to know what kimchi was back when I was a kid in the ’90s. My mom used to warn me against packing kimchi in my school lunchbox because she was worried the smell would offend other students. Even now, as an adult, I still subconsciously carry that stigma with me and find myself apologizing to my work colleagues when I bring Korean food into the office. These days, though, they tell me the smell just makes them jealous of my lunch.
It still astounds me to see how popular kimchi, a Korean side dish usually consisting of fermented cabbage, has become. It’s served at hip non-Korean restaurants. Beau’s Brewery produced a kimchi-flavoured beer. I’ve even seen it as an ice cream flavour. People not only know what kimchi is, but they also crave it and search for the best places to get it and other Korean food in Ottawa.
Now Ottawans have a new source for fresh, authentic, locally handmade kimchi. Dr. Yoon, a retired Korean professor of nursing who moved to Ottawa from South Korea in 2018, has launched her own line of kimchi products with the goal of sharing her love of delicious, healthy kimchi.
“I think a lot of people are thinking about their health right now,” she told me in Korean, sipping a cup of green tea while we chatted at my dining room table. “But many people don’t realize just how many probiotics kimchi contains… Probiotics can play many roles, like boosting your immune system, preventing cancer, and strengthening your gut.”
One of the benefits of locally made kimchi is that you can eat it at the optimal time of fermentation, unlike kimchi bought at the grocery store, which is shipped from overseas.
“Kimchi has the highest level of probiotics two weeks after it’s made,” Dr. Yoon told me. “But the level of probiotics drastically decreases 14 weeks after kimchi is made, so kimchi is especially delicious between 2 to 14 weeks after it is made.”
She told me how she became inspired to share her kimchi with others. “While I was in Korea, there was an American professor who came to our university while she was on sabbatical. I took that professor to a kalguksu (a type of Korean noodle dish) restaurant. That restaurant had tasty kimchi made with young radishes mixed with Napa cabbage. The professor tried that kimchi, and remarked that she had no idea that a vegetable-based dish could be so delicious.”
Dr. Yoon felt that the kimchi available at restaurants and markets in Ottawa was not as fresh, savoury, or crispy as she liked, and she often found it too salty or sour. “I once made kimchi for the charity bazaar at my university. My kimchi sold out quickly!” she recounted. “That’s when I knew my kimchi was loved.”
“When I started taking classes at the Adult High School in Ottawa in 2019 to improve my English skills, there were a few teachers who had been to Korea. One of the teachers said Anyong haseo (hello) to me, which took me by surprise, because I hadn’t said anything. I asked, ‘How did you know I’m Korean?’ She told me that she knew because of my style of dress. One day, I invited some teachers to my house to share Korean food. They told me they didn’t know kimchi could taste like this! […] I thought about how nice it would be to share my kimchi with more people.”
It was at that point she began thinking about starting a business. “My husband disagreed with the idea of me opening a kimchi business and suggested that I could make a batch of kimchi and just share it with people. But who would I share it with?” she recalled, laughing. “Only to the people I know? I realized that if I wanted to share my kimchi with more people, I needed to bring it to market.”
Dr. Yoon learned to make kimchi from her mother and has been making it for family and friends for 40 years. Drawing on her scientific background, she read research papers and refined her recipe to maximize the levels of probiotics and maintain its delicious taste.
“The key thing for kimchi is salt concentration,” she explained. “If the salt concentration is too high, the probiotics don’t grow well. However, if it is too low, the probiotics will disappear early and the shelf-life of kimchi won’t last long.” She experimented with varying levels of salinity and fermentation time. To maintain a consistent taste, she controls the levels of salt concentration and evaluates the taste of each batch 24 to 72 hours after making it. Now, she tells me, her kimchi contains levels of probiotics comparable to Danone’s Activia yogurt, but still has lower levels of salt concentration than the leading brand of kimchi from Korea.
I’ve been enjoying Dr. Yoon’s kimchi since the start of the pandemic when she started providing samples to promote her products. Her kimchi products are delicious, crispy, and healthy, with the perfect balance of salt and sourness. More importantly, its authentic taste reminds me of home. It reminds me of my grandmother, who I have not been able to visit in Toronto since the pandemic started, and whose Korean cooking I have been missing dearly. Culturally-specific comfort food has a way of nourishing the soul that is difficult to explain until you are missing it, craving it so badly that it feels like a physical ache. This pandemic has not been easy for many people, and during those long periods of lockdown when I could not even visit my own parents in Kanata for a home-cooked Korean meal, I was thankful that I could at least get kimchi delivered to my home to eat with my instant ramen noodles.
Dr. Yoon hopes one day to have her own kitchen space, rather than renting commercial kitchen time. At the moment, she offers kkadugi (kimchi made with diced radishes) and baechoo kimchi (made from cabbage), in original, extra spicy, and baek (non-spicy) versions. (My personal favourite is kkadugi.) Kimchi can be ordered from her website for pickup or delivery. It’s a great way to support local immigrant-owned small businesses while also enjoying the health benefits and unique savoury taste of kimchi.
Visit www.dryoonkimchi.ca to order online for pickup or delivery.