In your face, uncomfortable, whimsical, savory – seemingly conflicting adjectives that owner of Yakitori Bar and Seoul Food Company, Sang Kim uses to describe a famous, fermented Korean staple. Salted, slathered with ground chili powder, heaps of garlic, fish sauces and pastes – set to cure for a few hours or several months – kimchi is the quintessential Korean side dish. Whether prepared with napa cabbage, daikon radish, or just about any variety of veggie one can think of, kimchi is as rich in flavour as it is in history. It was also the subject of a historical event in the young life of Yakitori Bar and Seoul Food Company, the recently opened restaurant and bibimbap takeout shop in Baldwin Village.
Battle Kimchi brought together an assembly of some of the best kimchi makers in the city of Toronto. Six contestants duked it out for the rights to sell their recipe at the counter of Seoul Food Company next to Kim’s own “Sang’s Kickass Kimchi” and a share in the profits. Battle Kimchi had a host of four judges and a slew of anxious flavour seekers (myself included) rating both the raw form kimchi and an application of the pickled veg. From texture to taste, balance and overall eating experience, this was a tasty way to spend a Saturday!
Time to meet the contestants…
Belle Park is a respected natural food caterer within the Korean-Canadian community. Her love for kimchi and the science of food come from her mother, a renowned teacher of Korean cuisine.
Presenting both a freshly made kimchi with slices of garlic, chestnuts and Asian pear as well as a crisp napa cabbage kimchi aged for one month, Mrs. Park’s kimchi was beautifully balanced. Her colorful application of bibim soba (mixed soba) was impeccable – a mix of chewy soba noodles, crisp watercress, soft strands of egg, salty seaweed and a hit of kimchi made her a standout performer.
Rebekka Hutton was the only non-Korean participant to throw down in Battle Kimchi. Owner of Alchemy Pickle Company, she has devoted her life to producing regional and seasonal cultured vegetables, pickles, sauerkraut and of course, kimchi.
Procured directly from Southern Ontario farmers, Hutton presented a crunchy batch of kimchi daikon radish. The only contestant to step out of the mold and prepare a non-cabbage based kimchi. Placed on top of a baked crostini with salty melted cheese, the pairing was an excellent textural blend and would make for a fantastic party pleaser.
Though not originally slated to participate, our humble organizer, Sang Kim, boldly stated that he’d sampled the offerings of his five competitors and that he was content receiving “7th place”. Though the restaurateur, writer, and producer of Sang’s Kickass Kimchi was bashful in his kimchi battling skills, he still makes a fine breed.
A mix of flavours, from smoky chilies to the savory sweetness of the sea, while maybe not the winner in the traditional sense, Kim’s kimchi was perhaps the most unique. His application of kimchi marinated salmon, while fresh, soft and tasty, lacked presence in highlighting the key ingredient.
Sun Mi Kim was dressed for the test in her elegant hanbok (traditional Korean dress). A current student and proud mother, Kim comes from Cholla province in Southwestern Korea, one of the most famous for their style of Kimchi.
A lightly flavoured kimchi with magnificent crunch, Kim’s splendid kimchi unfortunately got lost in her pajeon preparation. Traditionally made from either rice or wheat flour, she made her pancake with mung bean, which made the silky, glutinous pancake more mealy and dry.
Absent from the competition, physically, a special surprise was flown in all the way from Vancouver for Battle Kimchi. Kathy Kim owns two supermarkets in Vancouver, including Kim’s Mart, specializing in Korean products.
Her fresh form of kimchi was made in the Kyeonggi-style, focusing on the quality of the fresh chili pepper. The natural colours of the ingredients can be seen here and her kimchi poutine, with crispy cubes of potato, gooey cheese and rich gravy was up there with my favourite applications.
Last, but most certainly not least, Seung Ah Kim is the first professional storyteller in Korea, and the first Korean storyteller to perform at the Toronto Storytelling Festival. Not only did she show up to compete, but also recounted a wonderful story about the perfect marriage of kimchi ingredients and gave a live kimchi making demonstration.
Her kimchi was the heaviest of the lot with a great spice and thick chili coating. Rinsed once, and assembled on top of dried laver with rice and sautéed daikon in perilla oil, her application reminded me of long nights at the BBQ table in Seoul – simple, yet entirely satisfying.
Though the decision was by no means unanimous, both the judges and the popular vote were in accordance: Belle Park is the new kimchi queen! I’m not sure if there’s a quota on how much is being sold, but all you Toronto kimchi fanatics best get to Seoul Food Company quickly! This stuff is mega mashisoyo [delicious]!
Picking my way through all these incredible edibles I started to seriously miss my time in Korea. There are loads of Korean restaurants around Toronto but I’m not sure any of them have battled quite like this. Yesterday, I woke in the morning smelling of garlic and cabbage. In fact, my car will likely acquire the aroma of Sang’s kitchen for the rest of the week as my kimchi musk ruminates from my pores. That being said, I’ll let them linger as a pervasive reminder of a fantastic event and another interesting chapter in the book of Yakitori Bar and Seoul Food Company. Kamsahamnida!