Fans of Korean food have long rooted for its entrance into the U.S. mainstream, imagining Americans downing bulgogi and bibimbap with the nonchalance now reserved for eggrolls, pizza and sushi rolls. In most places, that hasn't happened yet. But domestic eaters don't have to patronize a Korean restaurant to encounter the single most significant Korean food: Kimchi is so prevalent that it's made the menu at California Pizza Kitchen and TGI Friday's.
Kimchi dates back to at least the second century, when visitors from China noticed how much their hosts enjoyed fermented vegetables. But it didn't assume its current form until a few centuries ago, when traders brought Napa cabbage from China and chili peppers from the New World. While there are hundreds of different kinds of kimchi, the most common variety is baechu kimchi, a sour-sweet blend of cabbage, salt, ginger, garlic, fish sauce, scallions and sugar, heated by red pepper flakes.
In Korea, kimchi is served with every meal, accounting for more than 10 percent of an average Korean's daily food intake. But Koreans were traditionally wary of marketing the side dish to outsiders, who they feared would reject its distinctive funky odor. According to The Los Angeles Times, volunteers for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul were ordered to brush their teeth after every meal, lest foreigners catch a garlicky whiff of kimchi.
But Korean-American chefs helped facilitate kimchi's acceptance stateside. It now tops burgers, tacos and pizzas across the country. While many restaurants make their own kimchi, the new popularity has spurred an increase in jarred kimchi sales. Premade kimchi has also caught on in Korea, partly because city living isn't compatible with the traditional method of preparing the exceptionally healthful dish, which involves burying the ingredients underground for months.
Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park (The Southern Kimchi Dog, $5)
Most supermarkets stock at least one kind of kimchi, but it's worth visiting an Asian grocery, such as H&L Asian Market, for a wider selection. One of the better artisanal kimchis, Mother in Law's Kimchi, is sold at The Fresh Market across the Southeast. Roti Rolls, a local kimchi pioneer, sells its version by the Mason jar at the Charleston Farmers Market.
If you're anxious to try Roti Rolls' kimchi before you invest in a jarful, you can sample it on the food truck's hot dog, egg-and-short rib sandwich and popular Thurman Merman, made with braised beef, Creole mac-and-cheese and kimchi. Other local sandwich applications include the pork belly sub at Tattooed Moose and the Korean BBQ sandwich at The 'Wich Doctor. Kimchi also figures into the pimento cheese riff at Spero and fried shrimp preparation at The Granary. Still, Ko Cha in West Ashley remains the area's most traditional kimchi showcase.