Not all of us are lucky enough to have a Korean mom or halmuhni (grandma) to make us giant jars of kimchi to stuff into our refrigerators. Some of us have to buy kimchi from sterilized jars from mass Korean grocers or get them at Costco.
If you’re looking for a little more homemade flavor, though, we can visit everyone’s kimchi grandma, Sook-Jae Cho, at Kaesung Kimchi.
Cho has been making kimchi the Kaesung way for nearly 40 years in Los Angeles.
Kaesung is now known for being the North Korean city closest to the DMZ and South Korea. Before the Korean War, however, it was just a town that was part of Gyeonggi-do (Gyeonggi province), the province that surrounds Seoul like a large irregular shaped donut with the giant high-rises of the city as the donut hole. Long before the war, Kaesung was the capital of the Goryeo Dynasty for nearly 500 years before it was moved to Seoul. Its cuisine is known for its simple and clean flavors.
Cho and her family fled her hometown during the war. She ended up in Los Angeles during the ‘70s, immigrating here with her husband and three children. Homesick for her sisters and her family back in Korea, Cho started making kimchi as a side business to generate extra cash for a plane ticket home. That was in 1973.
Now four decades later, she still makes her famous Kaesung kimchi for customers who want that homemade flavor.
Cho didn't grow up making kimchi. She learned how to make it from her older sister after she got married in her twenties. Even after all these years, she still loves making it. Her eyes light up when she talks about trimming the vegetables, negotiating with farmers who bring their wares to the central market downtown, and picking the right ingredients for each kimchi.
Most Wednesdays, six or seven members of her family get together and make kimchi from whatever vegetables happen to be in season at the time. She said they usually knock out about 300 jars in one day.
Winter, she says, is the best time for kimchi in Los Angeles. Her favorite is the tong baechu (whole napa cabbage) kimchi, which comes in season in the winter in California.
For the summer, she recommends the yeolmu (young radish) water kimchi or the baek (white) kimchi.
Any given day, there are about 10 different flavors neatly lining the refrigerated shelves of the tiny store, along with gochu galu (chile powder), cham gileum (sesame oil), dwenjang (fermented soybean paste) and other small banchan (side dishes).
1010 S. Saint Andrews Place (just south of Olympic), Los Angeles, (323) 737-6565.