Oh Kimchi

By Shelly Seale
Photography by Allison Narro

As a Korean-American woman who makes kimchi for a living, Abigail Lunde admits that the fermented Korean side dish made with a variety of vegetables and spices is not always very good. “I grew up spoiled in terms of kimchi, as my mom, grandma and aunts in Korea are known to be rather good kimchi makers,” says Lunde.

“As I grew up and traveled around, I discovered how rare the ability to make traditional-style Korean kimchi was—even amongst Koreans. Most other kimchi was just not that tasty.”

Fortunately, Lunde learned the method her family members used to make the dish and was able to satisfy her own craving anytime she needed. But then she began to notice that the dish was suddenly growing in popularity around the world. “It started popping up on television and in magazines I was reading,” Lunde says. “And when that ‘Gangnam Style’ song came out, that was the final ridiculous straw. My mom, incidentally, grew up in the Gangnam district in Seoul and I realized that Austin was ready for some real kimchi!”

Lunde had a ready source of ingredients—she and her husband, Duane, had been working at Johnson’s Backyard Garden (JBG) for two years and often had a surplus of organic vegetables on hand. She started using this bounty to make batches of kimchi for herself and for friends, and soon the growing fan base encouraged her to start selling batches of the treasure—some even offered the use of their kitchens and farmers market stands to help. “Duane and I have been lucky to manage tents for JBG alongside some incredible farmers and artisans from this city and nearby who are really doing some revolutionary things,” she says. “We have made so many amazing connections in the food community.”

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By September of 2013, the couple was selling their Oh Kimchi products at Austin farmers markets and the response was overwhelming. “I seriously underestimated this city's demand for some good fermented veg,” Lunde says with a laugh. While she makes the product, Duane heads up the marketing, branding and sales plan. Lunde takes her infant daughter, Ellie, with her to the three Saturday markets while Duane usually works the Sunday markets. She is also quick to credit a crew of loyal friends who share the kimchi love with as many people as possible. “Our goal is to make delicious traditional kimchi from seasonal, local vegetables,” she says. “This stuff is one of the healthiest foods you can eat—from the vegetable nutrition to the probiotics. It can be medicine for your brain and your body and can taste awesome, too.”

Making kimchi the traditional way, Lunde says, involves far more than just cabbage. Kimchi is a process, not just a single dish, and can be made using many different vegetables and ingredients. She’s used these first months entering the market to test-drive flavor profiles to see which vegetables and combinations will be most popular here. “We’ve learned that Austinites really like their kimchi very ripe—almost like a sauerkraut—and I’ve had to adjust my methods to accommodate this difference,” she says. “Typically, Koreans, myself included, prefer their kimchi much fresher, only after a couple of days of fermentation. But here, I’ve noticed people are enjoying theirs more aged—nice and funky.”

Lunde says that a spicy mustard-green variety has been very popular at the markets, as well as the traditional napa cabbage with oyster and shrimp—just like her grandma made. Oh Kimchi also offers vegan and sugar-free options. And having spent time as a vegan- and raw-diet practitioner, Lunde feels it’s vital to produce foods as close to the source as possible. “I believe that in order to respect our bodies, we have to respect our food in every way possible—from the way it’s raised to the way we handle it. Transparency is important to me in how I eat and how I feed my family, and that's how we feel about our kimchi. I make it the way I would eat it, and I am so damned particular. I feel like that has to count for something.”

For more information, visit facebook.com/OhKimchiAustin