Review: Trader Joe’s Dried Kimchi
But is that centuries-old red chili-and-cabbage spicy-sour staple of the Korean dining table being marketed by this Western U.S. grocery chain as 반찬 banchan — a side dish that accompanies the meal — or as seasoning, a condiment or snack?
That explains why I had a hard time finding it at first in the north San Francisco Bay–area store I visited in early March. It reportedly was advertised as a seasoning or a condiment, so I pored over the spice section for several minutes before giving up to complete my shopping list. Then I happened upon it in the snack aisle, sharing space with the potato, kale and pita chips. So, this is supposed to be a snack?
I wonder if this product is the result of Kim Soon-ja’s labor? Back in 2009, the Los Angeles Times interviewed this owner of Han Sung Food, based in Bucheon near Seoul, about her idea of developing baechu kimchi without a pungent smell. She believed that freeze-drying it would encourage non-Koreans to appreciate kimchi.
Five years later, we find a dried kimchi as Trader Joe’s latest packaged Korean food preparation. The chain has offered Korean staples such as 갈비 kalbi (grilled beef ribs), 불고기 bulgogi (marinaded sauteed beef), roasted seaweed snacks, 김치복음밥 kimchi fried rice and 비빔밥 bibimbap for some time. The company just recently started selling traditional baechu kimchi in the refrigerator section.
But the crispy kimchi is not the same as the chilly kimchi. The dried product has all the basic ingredients of regular baechu kimchi: cabbage, red chili, garlic, ginger, salt, onion and radish. Yet it is very “fish-forward” — to hook a wine country term — from both shrimp paste and anchovy in the paste. Usually, paste for baechu kimchi contains one or the other.
The nutrition label says 0.7 ounces of dried kimchi is enough for four people. That’s basically one or two pinches of dried kimchi per person — ludicrous. That’s the kind of serving size I’d expect from a seasoning or condiment, not a snack.
The conversation about whether this product is a snack, dish ingredient or topping started in Koreafornian Cooking‘s social media circles. One of the Facebook feeds I follow had sent out a brief blip on the product launch, so I sent out a quick comment via Facebook and Twitter:
Demi Dang, one of my Twitter followers, pounced on it pretty quickly:
But I wasn’t ready to make any kind of comment beyond letting people know of its existence.
A few days later, Demi got back to me with her opinion on the dried kimchi:
I wouldn’t call it “bland,” but I would say that the flavors are not well-balanced. To me, the dried kimchi was very fishy and salty with just a dash of heat and spice. That’s what you’ll get from a double dose of shrimp paste and anchovy and a double dose of salt from regular salt and the aforementioned shrimp paste.
My recommendation is to treat this product as a condiment:
- Open the bag, let as much air out of it as possible then reseal the bag.
- Crush the dried kimchi as much as possible with a rolling pin.
- Sprinkle it on pizza as a substitute for crushed red pepper flakes that are common fare in Italian restaurants.