The Side Dish at the Center of the Table: A Story of Kimchi in Atlanta

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If there's any indication of the widespread immigration of Koreans, then it's the influence that kimchi has had on the culinary sphere. Wherever Koreans go, kimchi ensues. 

The name kimchi may conjure up many words, like spicy, red, salty, pungent, or even umami, complex, robust, and—more recently taking precedence—vegetarian and organic. But the particularly unique taste that seems to sharply complement rather than overtake the main dish has made kimchi an imaginative and fun addition to the artillery of ingredients for chefs and cooks, and it’s influences are well observed in a city budding with new talent and cultural shifts, Atlanta.

A Brief History

The history of kimchi dates almost back to the third century. Records of the Three Kingdoms mentions the process of fermentation that defines the Korean culinary staples, including bean paste. Due to long and harsh winters, the people had to find ways to make food last, and brine preservatives made fermentation in the ground the main option for lasting against the cold. The Koryeo Period (918-1392) saw evidence of more and more kinds of vegetables being experimented with in the fermentation process, but it wasn’t until the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) that we see the kind of kimchi that we’re familiar with today.

What we believe to be the Korean national food is, in fact, largely thanks to foreign influences. The cabbage that is most widely used to make kimchi was an import of China, and the red pepper that adorns almost every kind of kimchi imaginable didn’t appear in Korea until about the 1500s through—get this—the Japanese. Through Portuguese trade from the Americas and Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s attempts to invade Korea in 1592-1598, red chili pepper was introduced to the peninsula and became the main source of spice for kimchi and many other Korean dishes.

All this tells us that kimchi isn’t really a food as it is a process, perfected by necessity to overcome harsh conditions. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of different kinds of kimchi, and its earliest predecessors looked nothing like the side dish we enjoy today. What started as a survival tactic has become an art in its own right, and it’s safe to say that the culinary world, whether for better or for worse, will never be the same.

Main Ingredients

The most popular type of kimchi made from the Napa cabbage has a few basic ingredients:
Salt / water (Brine)
Red Chili pepper – dried
Fish sauce

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Napa cabbage is often substituted for other types of vegetables, such as cucumbers, and radish is an option that allows for a variety for texture if it isn’t acting as the main vegetable itself. Of course, as mentioned before, there is hardly a single way to make kimchi, and this is simply just one of many personalities. To meet these personalities in Atlanta, however, you have only to go to one of many locations all over the metro area to try it in its many forms.

Kimchi in Atlanta

Today, Atlanta is bustling with Korean restaurants and markets, most notably in the Gwinnett area of Duluth on or near Pleasant Hill Road.

But any native of Atlanta of Korean descent knows that the birthplace of Korean cuisine was on Buford Highway in Doraville. Harue, Hae Woon Dae, Don Quixote, 88, and Gohyang House—just to name a few—are all names of old, but they invoke good memories of family dining that was tucked away on this long, obscure stretch of road. Hae Woon Dae, in fact, is still open, but they didn’t get the memo for the mass migration up north along I-85, and the tattered newspaper clippings that adorn its entrance of its heyday is a reminder of their forlorn status.

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So it’s no wonder that the first place to commercially purchase kimchi was on Buford Highway, most likely to provide for the many restaurants that dotted the roadside. Buford Highway Farmers Market first opened over forty years ago in 1974 on Oakcliff Road, and it wasn’t until 1985 when Harold Shinn opened its hundred-thousand-square-foot location off of I-285 to accommodate the immense demand for international foods, including Hispanic, Eastern European, and other Asian cultures.

This was the first place in Atlanta to buy kimchi.

Next came Agnes Market, opened by the Rhee family circa 1987 on Buford Highway. This was much before the migration up north, but they accommodated and made the move along with the Korean-American people to the Steve Reynolds and Satellite Boulevard intersection in 1996, named Hangang after the Han River that flows through the heart of Seoul, South Korea.

What came next was evidence of the huge influx of Korean immigrants into the Atlanta area. In 2004, H Mart opened its first location on Pleasant Hill Road. H Mart is an entire market dedicated to the Korean-American populace, along with many other items for other Southeast Asian cultures. Over the next four years, they opened four more successive locations all over the northern Atlanta area, with its most recent opening off of Peachtree Road, which is ironically the closest one to the original stretch of Buford Highway where the first Korean restaurants could be found.

And they weren’t without competition from other chains that also noted the population increase and the rise in demand for Korean markets. Nam Dae Mun opened their first off of Shackleford Road near Duluth in 2005, and has since added five more locations dotted all over metro Atlanta. The same year, Assi Plaza opened their first on Old Peachtree Road in Suwannee, and joined the Duluth territory in 2009 on Pleasant Hill Road on the opposite side of I-85.

Now, kimchi can be bought at any of these locations, but they are undoubtedly Korean owned and targeted. Where we see kimchi making its mark is in its progression and influences on its surrounding cultures, most notably the southern origins.

Kimchi and Other Foods

The name Jiyeon Lee may be familiar to those old enough to have listened to Korean pop music back in the late 80s. She recorded several songs that became wildly popular, but after a while, she was unheard of for many years.

Fast forward to 2010, and she has suddenly reappeared on the scene, but now in Atlanta in a completely different profession as a chef. She opened Heirloom Market BBQ with co-chef Cody Taylor and has won awards for their Korean barbeque pulled pork sandwich that showcases both its southern and Korean influences. The dinner table is arrayed with southern-style barbeque, and this sandwich, called the “Spicy Korean Pork,” is the traditionally regional barbeque with—you guessed it—kimchi on top. Along with Korean slaw and kimchi green tomatoes, this is the ultimate exemplification of southern influence – the American South and South Korea.

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Next up on the scene was someone who’d taken Atlanta by such a storm that she has been hailed as the Kimchi Queen. Hannah Chung is a thirty-three-year-old ambassador and pathfinder for the Korean staple, most notably for her own brand of kimchi and pork belly buns. She was first found behind her own pop-up stands in markets all over Atlanta, where most of the vendors were there to sell their locally grown or made products. And then there was Hannah selling kimchi, the most foreign product there could possibly be, from its funny name to how it looked and smelled. And yet, she was local, the ultimate testament to how kimchi had made its home in this southern city.

Hannah Chung founded Simply Seoul in March of 2013. And she hasn’t stopped. Her kimchi jars have made their way into Whole Foods for its vegan and all-natural ingredients; her Atlanta kitchen is bustling to meet the demands for her catering service; and now Simply Seoul can be found at their new Ponce City Market location since September of 2015. If Atlanta had a spokesperson for kimchi, she would be it.

There are many other notables for kimchi-inspired foods all around Atlanta. James Martin, a graphic designer by trade, sells hotdogs out of his cart. I first encountered Doggy Dogg at a Root City Market event at Stove Works off of Krog Street in Old Fourth Ward, Atlanta. When I perused their menu, however, something that caught my eye was their “Sharpei dogg,” a beef dog topped with mustard and bacon bits, and—generously laid across the top?—Simply Seoul’s radish kimchi. And it was delicious. Coupled with the fact that they were selling at a Root City Market event—their tagline is “made in the South”—it was nice to see that kimchi had made its way even onto the food of America’s favorite pastime sport.

There are many others, of course. There’s Victory Sandwich Bar that serves white kimchi on their “Beeter” sandwich. Or there’s Fred’s Meat and Bread found in the Krog Street Market that serves a Korean Fried Chicken Sandwich, featuring kimchi as its main topping. There’s also Sobban in Decatur, Heirloom BBQ’s sister restaurant that further explores the boundaries where Korean and southern cuisine meet.

There doesn’t seem to be an end to the list of foods that kimchi can adorn, and looking at the direction that the trend is going, the future promises to unveil many more. Atlanta can boast that kimchi has made a permanent home in it, but that’s simply because the city is built in a way that has allowed immigrant cultures to take root and flourish in it. If Atlanta keeps this up, then there’s no telling how much creativity can sprout from its urbanity.

And that is a story worth telling.