What is it about beer and sauerkraut that makes them taste so good? It's fermentation, a natural process whereby bacteria creates lactic acid in foods, preserving them. Pickles are another good example. In the Korean kitchen, fermentation plays a key role, since it's required to produce kimchi - made with either radishes, cabbages or both; it defines the culture.
"We eating every single day. From when I was born until die, we eating almost every day for the kimchi," said Charles Cho, of the Korean American Chamber of Commerce.
At the Pal Chun Man Kimchi plant in Albany Park, they produce plenty of the namesake snack. Their most popular version begins with napa cabbage. They go through about 4,000 heads each week. First, they get submerged in salt water for a day or two; this gets the fermentation process going. Then the cabbage is washed thoroughly of any residual salt, at least three times in clean water. It's rinsed and transferred to a work surface; the hard bottoms of the stalk are cut off, then it's time for the kimchi transformation: an assertively-spiced mixture of chilies, garlic and onions are rubbed into every possible crevice. It's packed into giant jars, but not too tightly, because the fermented product is still active with pro-biotic cultures.
The same is true of bread. Just think about sourdough. At Baker and Nosh in Uptown, the tang of flavor and satisfying chew is a result of fermentation.
"After the dough rises and proofs, there's all of this gas in it and it's very, very delicate and if you overmanipulate the dough, then it just deflates," said Bill Millholland, of Baker and Nosh.
Fermented soy beans, or miso, play a large role in the Japanese kitchen. At Arami, in West Town, it's used in a number of ways, not just in soup.
"Different fermentation processes lend different end results, so you can get anything from a really salty, kind of earthy miso to a very sweet," said Scott Malloy, one of the cooks at Arami.
Nuka miso is used for burying vegetables to help pickle them; white miso is combined with butter, to make a unique baste for grilled vegetables, and saikyo miso is used to pickle garlic.
"Through that pickling process you end up actually adding nutrients to it, you get vitamin B and some other things to it, so it's actually very, very healthy for you," said Malloy.
So when you see a product on the menu that is fermented, like sauerkraut, kimchi or miso, remember, it's not only going to be tasting good, but it's also going to be good for you.
Pal Chun Man Kimchi plant
4539 N. Pulaski Rd.
Note: the plant is not open to the public, but their product is carried at local supermarkets such as:
Super H Mart
801 Civic Center Dr., Niles
1295 East Ogden Ave., Naperville
Baker & Nosh
1303 W. Wilson Ave.
1829 W. Chicago Ave.