Chef Edward Lee on how a bite of kimchi can turn you into a fire-breathing cabbage fiend.
Kimchi is so obviously and distinctly Korean that it distinguishes the cuisine from the rest of Asia. A verb, rather than a noun, you can "kimchi" anything, the same way you can pickle anything. It's sour, spicy, savory, salty and crunchy, with layers of flavor that come from fish sauce, ginger, garlic and chile flakes.
Kimchi is addictive, like a gateway drug to Korean cuisine. Even non-Korean chefs are finding ways to sneak it into their food. I've had it in paella at Toro in Boston, and stir-fried with tofu skin and served with seafood at San Francisco's State Bird Provisions. I think my absolute favorite example of kimchi fusion is the Korean quesadilla at Kogi in Los Angeles—the perfect American repackaging of melted cheese and kimchi.
This isn't authentic Korean food, clearly, but rather chefs riffing on Korean flavors and expanding the discussion. I'm exploring my own kind of mash-up cuisine at my new restaurant, MilkWood, in Louisville, Kentucky, where a fistful of kimchi lands improbably, but deliciously, in a simmering pot of collard greens.
Edward Lee is the chef-owner of 610 Magnolia and MilkWood in Louisville, KY. His debut cookbook, Smoke & Pickles, is out now. Read more from the September travel issue.