Unless you brave far into the depths of Chinatown, the most exotic Asian food you’ll most likely eat while in Hawaii is the fiery-red-colored concoction in the jar. Open the jar, and find out how good of a batch you really got by the way your eyes and nose instantly react. The vibrantly contained colors get exposed, either leaving subtle traces of sweetness in its path or demanding your attention with its pungent sass.
Kim chee. A simple name for a seemingly simple food, but the monosyllabic word duo will no doubt give a nice kick to your taste buds (and maybe your ego, depending on if you can handle it or not). The famously fermented Korean dish includes vegetables (cabbage, radish, cucumbers) with a variety of seasonings. And while there are hundreds of different types, its sour pickled flavors are always a constant in the kim chee-quation.
Kim chee is huge in Hawaii, even after nearly 100 years since Korean immigrants continued the spicy trend here. You can find it at grocery stores, on local restaurant menus and in most Hawaii households. Unless you’ve got a proven tongue of steel, take baby steps. Add a little to your saimin or use your free pass to rinse off some of the red peppery zing before nibbling into it, without anyone calling you a wuss!
I know people who really have the hots for kim chee and will eat this stuff for breakfast, lunch and dinner; in sandwiches, on rice or straight out of the jar. They’re the kind of people who will tell you that you can “kim chee any kind of vegetable!” Looks like it’s not only become a Hawaii staple but a verb too? That’s saying something!As some in Hawaii might say, “CHEE HEEEEE to kim chee!”
The word kim chee can be written in English as kim chi, kimchi or gimchi. It’s caught on around the world as an all-time popular dish, almost as much as my favorite saying, “You’re in deep kim chee,” meaning, “You’re in trouble!” In fact, so many diehards have fallen for its lustful tanginess that November 22 (today!) has become National Kim Chee Day.
And for good reason. It’s been selected as one of the five health foods in the world with research showing tons of health advantages. Cruciferous vegetables, like cabbage, are high in cancer-fighting antioxidants, fiber, vitamins C and K, calcium and iron. The fact that it’s fermented also serves as a big plus, according to the Korea Kimchi Association.The “Kim Chee Lady” was a bit embarrassed when I showed her this picture on my camera. “Bowls look empty!” But I assured her, “That mean’s your kim chee’s good! It sells fast!”
Back to Hawaii kim chee addicts – some qualifying as connoisseurs if they pickle the veggies themselves, which many local families do. That’s how some of the dominant local kim chee businesses started out. Queen’s Super Market in Kalihi (home of the “Kim Chee Lady”) has the pickled veggies written all over. In grocery stores, you’ll see brands like Kohala Kim Chee and Halms Enterprises, and even popular restaurants like Alan Wong’s in Honolulu serve kim chee sandwiches–much fancier ones, of course.
I’ll leave you with this interesting fact, to prove just how much some people depend on this stuff: In South Korea earlier this month, volunteers made massive amounts of kim chee to donate to the needy for winter – about 270 tons of it! Looks like somebody’s getting kim chee for Christmas!