Chefs can use spices and herbs to help add flavor to dishes and butter or cream to add richness. To add a note of salty, briny, spiciness, they often turn to kimchi, which is beloved in Korea.
ABC7's Hungry Hound discovered how kimchi is made in Seoul, then found a chef in Chicago who puts his own spin on it.
Walk the streets of Seoul, sit down in a restaurant there or just pop into a mall for a snack and you'll see kimchi, everywhere. There are hundreds of variations, most involving fermented vegetables, laced with chilies. The tradition of salting and seasoning vegetables isn't lost on a Korean-American chef here, who gives his kimchi a Midwestern accent.
The freshly-ground mung bean pancakes steal the show at the Dongdaemun Public Market in Seoul, but it's the endless, open-air stalls, filled with colorfully pungent mounds of freshly-made kimchi that lure shoppers in. The spicy, fermented cabbages and radishes are so revered there an entire museum dedicated to the condiment.
Homemade kimchi is one of the daily duties at bellyQ in the West Loop, where owner Bill Kim's Korean heritage plays a key role on the menu.
"It adds that quick spice that a lot of people don't think about, or are afraid to use, but you could use it in little minute amount to add that kind of spice to your dish," said Kim.
Kim first salts a bowl of cabbage, blood radishes, some green ramp leaves and tiny, Kirby cucumbers. After they sit for an hour, they're soaked in water and are then squeezed dry by hand. It's a quick kimchi, with a short fermentation that softens the texture of the vegetables.
"I really adore, and it's a traditional way of having the Napa kimchi, but daikon, kirbys, blood radishes I like to throw them all in there," he said.
Kim then creates his kimchi by adding a baseline of Korean chili flakes and garlic; plus fennel seeds and garlic chives, along with some sesame oil and a hint of fish sauce. Everything is incorporated well, and once he plates it, he adds some fresh cilantro and Thai basil. The same kimchi can be added to a hearty, spicy tofu hot pot embedded with bits of bacon, giving the dish further complexity and bite.
"Bacon and kimchi I found out - that's my new classic combination - or even we dehydrate the kimchi and use it as a seasoning salt on meats and also popcorn, so I try to use as much kimchi as possible," said Kim.
Kimchi is not limited to the city, of course. There are Korean restaurants in Glenview, Rolling Meadows and Arlington Heights. Each one has a recipe that will be slightly different from each other, kind of like chili.
1400 W. Randolph St.
Woo Lae Oak
3201 Algonquin Rd, Rolling Meadows
There will be kimchi workshops at the upcoming Chicago Korean Festival (August 10-11), where visitors can take home a souvenir batch of their very own hand-crafted kimchi.