A best-kept Koreatown secret: Where to get freshly pressed sesame oil
Mr. Chong doesn’t want me to tell you about his store (or even to tell me his first name). In fact, he doesn’t want you to come at all.
When I ask him for permission to take some photos for the Los Angeles Times, he refuses -- and almost chases me out of his store. I ask him why, but he doesn’t answer. I suspect it’s because he is embarrassed about his lack of English. He doesn’t want the hassle of having to deal with non-Koreans. I understand, but I’m still sharing my secret place with you. This is the only place I get my sesame oil. Chong has been my sesame oil dealer for years.
Chong’s is a humble little storefront located in that strange area where 8th Street intersects Oxford and Western. Inside is one of the best-kept secrets of Koreatown -- a place to get the freshest sesame oil (cham gileum) in the city. There are two kinds of oil: one made from regular sesame seeds and the other from black sesame seeds. The black one is a little darker in color with just a little more depth, but the flavor profiles are almost identical. According to Chong, the black sesame oil is healthier for you.
Chong inherited the store from his now deceased mother, who started it years ago. He also sells other Korean pantry goods such as gochu galu (chile powder), dried soybeans and toasted sesame seeds.
He gets his sesame seeds from El Salvador and processes them in-house. All Korean sesame oil is made from toasted seeds. If you can see through the bottle, it’s not dark enough. Chong’s oils are deep caramel in color, aromatic and nutty with just a wee bit of a smoky bite from the roasting. After you get them, be sure to store the bottles in a cool dark place, because light breaks down the oil faster. Never store them in the refrigerator. The cold makes the oil separate.
Also, sesame oil has a low burning point, which means that it smokes and burns easily. For stir-frying, it’s best to mix with a high-burning-point oil (such as canola) or use sesame oil as a finisher. I don’t recommend using olive oil, though, because the flavor clashes with that of the sesame.
Chong’s has small, medium and large bottles. They may seem a little expensive, but they’re so worth it. After you’ve tasted freshly pressed sesame oil, you’ll never go store-bought again. Your kimchi fried rice and galbi will be worlds better. Chong’s sesame oil will even up your salad dressing game.
Beware that there’s no sign out front in English, and it’s cash only. Chances are you’ll walk in the store and no one will be there. Call out to the back and Chong will appear after a few minutes.
Don’t ask him too many questions. Just pay for your sesame oil and go. And don’t tell him I sent you.
3560 W. 8th St., Los Angeles (shipping available anywhere in the continental U.S. via UPS)
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