Written onJune 01 , 2010
A buried kimchi pot looks like a small bump in the ground.
The buried kimchi pot at Laughing Lotus Farm looks like a small bump in the ground in someone’s dooryard, which a visitor could walk past without a second glance.
“But imagine a field of buried kimchi pots!” Dave Brodrick enthused minutes after I arrived at Laughing Lotus Farm and walked past the bump in the dooryard. I imagined a field of the same small bumps. But I figured I’d be more impressed by what would be inside those buried pots: a traditional Korean mix of ingredients packed by kimchi entrepreneur Iris Kim Brodrick and left to ferment throughout the winter.
I was at the Brodricks’ farm in Barnard to watch them dig up their kimchi pot before an early April heat wave threatened to ruin what had taken months of collaboration between cook and nature to create. This particular pot was an experiment. It was buried the previous October in the hopes of making more kimchi underground (as a complement to the Laughing Lotus kimchi currently sold in stores and made in a special refrigerator). The flavors produced by the buried-pot approach are distinct, due partly to different fermentation times—Dave describes this as “trusting the earth to ferment appropriately”—and partly to differences in the vessels. The intent of Iris and Dave is to sell the special batches as premium limited editions.
But before I could fully appreciate this culinary twist on buried treasure, Iris had to fill me in on the basics of this traditional Korean food.
She began by dismissing the common belief that kimchi, primarily consisting of fermented cabbage along with some other vegetables, is sauerkraut with ginger and hot peppers thrown in for Asian flavoring. An authentic kimchi recipe does include ginger, but also garlic, dried Korean chili peppers, brined baby shrimp and anchovy sauce, and it’s fermented at progressively colder temperatures to set crispness in the vegetables. Special kimchi refrigerators that automatically take the ingredients through the appropriate temperatures at the proper time are common in South Korea, although before electric refrigeration was available, Koreans put their kimchi in clay pots and buried them in the cool ground or brought them to local caves to age. Before Iris and Dave had their own kimchi refrigerator, they employed a low-tech strategy of moving buckets through different rooms and drafty corners in their circa 1784 home in search of the right temperatures.
The different tools for making kimchi produce slightly different results. The containers used in the refrigerator method are made from a material that won’t impart any flavor into the ingredients as they ferment. The buried pots, on the other hand, are sometimes made by master pot makers who use special clay that influences the kimchi’s taste the way an oak barrel would influence the taste of wine. Some sought-after kimchis are aged for years and available only at certain restaurants.
Kimchi as a staple food doesn’t have a clear equivalent in the U.S. It is such a staple in South Korea that two varieties of it appear at every meal (yes, that includes breakfast)—and not as a condiment but as a major component. For those daily servings Korean families have more than 200 varieties to choose from, including the year-round cabbage and daikon radish option that is most familiar to Americans, along with seasonal varieties, such as cucumber, eggplant, or pumpkin. Plus, each family maintains their own recipe. Iris paused when using the word “recipe” and explained that, in this case, “recipe” means general guidance along the lines of “a little bit of this, a little of that”—even when written in a cookbook. New wives learn the translation for those “little bits” by cooking with their husbands’ mothers.
So many people are making so much kimchi, and have been doing so for so many centuries, that South Korea has an unofficial national holiday dedicated to kimchi making. The time off gives families a chance to prepare their supplies for the year and it’s customary for employers to offer a kimchi bonus to help pay for ingredients. Even in the cities. Even today.
Iris knows how odd nationwide fermented cabbage making, pursued en masse during an annual holiday, might seem to a modern American audience. Since her family came to the U.S. from Seoul when she was 13, Iris has lived progressively in Chicago, Las Vegas, and New York City, and is no stranger to diets that never involve actual cooking. Still, she seemed surprised when questioned about why young people don’t just go to the grocery store for kimchi. The simple explanation was: “You can’t find the right style to match your family’s and you need so much it’s too expensive.”
Of course, many Vermont communities are familiar with food preparation as an excuse for celebration, if not exactly a national holiday. The Barnard community, where the Brodricks moved from New York City, has a rich variety of local gatherings around food throughout the year. On the day I visited, Dave was getting a lesson in grafting the apple trees in the yard, in hopes of contributing better apple harvests to Barnard’s autumn cider pressing party. Iris mentioned the pizza parties where an up-and-coming local bakery supplies a variety of doughs and neighbors bring the toppings and beverages.
It was one of Barnard’s community events that inspired the Brodricks to launch their line of Laughing Lotus products. When Fable Farm CSA subscribers, including the Brodricks, gathered for an end-of-season celebration, Iris brought plenty of her kimchi to share. The chef at the nearby restaurant Twin Farms loved the product and ordered a case. Iris had been toying with the idea of selling at the farmers’ market that summer, but this request led her to think about different options. She soon called up Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier to ask about finding a place on their shelves. The buyer didn’t think there would be space for the product, but after trying a sample agreed to add it to the shelves and helped Laughing Lotus prepare a product for retail sale.
Iris packed jars by hand, printed individual labels, and started monthly demonstrations at Hunger Mountain. She turned to nearby farms for the cabbage and radishes. Soon orders arrived often enough that she invested in her kimchi refrigerator. Soon after that she felt established enough in the process to start experimenting with variations like the buried pot and growing her own ingredients. Laughing Lotus had become a business.
Kimchi, when you think about it, really does have all the trappings of the next great Vermont classic: its primary ingredients are easily grown here; buried kimchi relies on the cooperation of weather in winter and early spring, just like our maple syrup does; and every step along the way in production is an excuse for a party. And the festive occasion of unearthing a buried kimchi pot falls conveniently between sugaring season and the start of planting, which is exactly what April has been missing.
In fact, the opportunities for Laughing Lotus to combine Korean traditions with activities for a modern Vermont community seem endless. Dave has visions for a community rice paddy in their backyard and Iris hopes to start cooking classes. They both want to bring their farmhouse, originally an inn and tavern, back to its former glory two centuries ago, when it served as a central gathering place for local residents (along with former President James Monroe and General Lafayette). The field of buried pots Dave envisions when he looks at his backyard wouldn’t just increase the availability of gourmet kimchi, it would first and foremost be an expansion of a community endeavor.
The moment of truth for the first kimchi pot buried on Laughing Lotus soil finally arrived, as temperatures climbed from frosty to the mid-70s under a strong sun. Would the effort to make kimchi the traditional way really make a difference? Would it not only result in a community activity but also a true premium product? Yep, the effort was worth it. The refrigerator kimchi was good, but the clay pot version was so good even a Vermonter like me would eat it for breakfast. I had four helpings before I left.
Laughing Lotus products include kimchi (in spicy, mild, and vegan versions), tamari pickles, red gooey paste, and Korean-style sauerkraut. They are currently sold at Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier and the South Royalton Co-op. For more information, go to www.laughinglotusfarm.com. If you want to experiment with Korean-style cooking in your own home, Iris recommends Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee’s Quick & Easy Korean Cooking (Chronicle Books, 2009).
Photo of Iris Brodrick by Helen Labun Jordan