A friend recently tipped me to Trader Joe's addition of a new Korean item to its grocery store shelves: 김치 kimchi.
Baechu kimchi is the most well-known Korean food. Until the last few years, it also struck fear into many with non-Korean palates, thanks to horror stories passed down by Korean War-era grandfathers. That wasn't helped by the popular euphemism "deep kimchi" for being mired in post-digestion waste.
I found Trader Joe's private-label kimchi in the refrigerated section of one of its San Francisco Bay area stores. The sealed, laminated package held 10 ounces of kimchi and retailed for $1.99. Although the kimchi is sold under the store brand, it is labeled as being made in Korea.
This is not your Korean grandma's kimchi: It's vegan, which means no shrimp paste, fish sauce or raw oysters. Replacing that umami flavor role is shiitake mushroom powder. Other than that, key TJ kimchi ingredients are stereotypically Korean: garlic, ginger, radish, red pepper flakes, rice paste and green onion.
I've been spoiled by being able to buy fresh-made kimchi from a local Asian foods grocer. Despite having two oxygen absorbers inside the sealed package, TJ kimchi was ripe enough — tangy from fermentation — to be 김장 kimjang.
Kimjang is winter kimchi. At the end of the growing season in late November or early December, Koreans gather up the last of the cabbage, radishes and other veggies then process as much of it as quickly as possible into kimchi. That provides vegetables to eat until spring. Yet by that time, the kimjang is quite sour.
Just as the tongue center of Gu Jun Pyo's accident-rattled brain couldn't forget the taste of Geum Jan Di's 계란말이 gyeranmari (rolled omelette) in the 2009 K-drama Boys Over Flowers, I can't forget the taste of kimjang.
By comparison, when our family makes it to the bottom of our one-gallon jar of custom kimchi after a few weeks, the remainder is pretty sour and ready for 김차찌개 kimchi jjigae (stew).
It takes a very, very long time for kimchi to truly go bad. [See "Faster fermentation: Does kimchi primed make kimchi before its time?" and "Interview with Delilah Snell of Project Small on kimchi-making."]
Trader Joe's kimchi is simply well-fermented. For the least-sour experience, look for a package with a "best by" date on the package as far in the future as possible. If it's too sour for you, consider using it along with some broth to make kimchi jjigae.