Fermentation is an art in Korean cuisine, and no one knows this better than Lauryn Chun. A cookbook author and founder of Mother in Law’s, a Korean food brand specializing in kimchi, gochujang, gochugaru and other Korean pantry staples, Chun helped to usher kimchi into the artisanal food scene back in 2009, all thanks to her mother’s own “unapologetic and authentic” recipe.
Looking back, she calls it “an epiphany”: she saw the way people in Brooklyn were becoming interested in specialty foods, considering how things were produced and sourced more than they ever had before. “I thought, I wonder if there’s a way that I could connect people’s interests in craft beer, cheeses, all these artisanal Western fermented foods, and have them understand kimchi as something like that,” she remembers. “I wanted to tell the story of kimchi and be that bridge.”
Chun says fermentation is what sets Korean food apart from other cultural cuisines. “It’s built on the taste of fermentation,” she says. “The foundational flavors of the Korean pantry are soy sauce, gochujang, doenjang — these sauces that are fermented and build flavors. That’s what makes Korean food appealing to so many people. They don’t really know why they like it, but it has to do with those savory building blocks of flavor that come from these fermented sauces.”
Technically, fermentation is a process that produces a desired change in a food or beverage through the actions of certain microorganisms, typically by removing oxygen. According to Chun, in making things like kimchi or gochujang (a paste made of fermented soy beans and chili), the primary ingredients are first salted and brined to preserve them throughout the fermentation process and make them safe to eat.
Aside from creating a distinct flavor, fermented foods also serve another purpose: they’re good for you. “That’s a Korean and Eastern food tradition, that food is medicine,” Chun explains. Fermented foods aid in digestion, offering a dose of probiotics that may help to strengthen your gut microbiome. Even the heat element serves a larger health purpose. “The thing that makes it spicy, the capsicum in the chili peppers, is an anti-inflammatory,” Chun explains. “In all these traditional cultures, there is some amount of spice because it’s medicinal,” she explains.
In the years since launching Mother in Law’s, Chun has seen many changes in the food world — particularly, the incredible magnitude of the Internet and its ability to unite cultures through food. “People’s interests grew through their conversations, through the Internet, and it’s not slowing down,” she says. “That exchange is so human, it breaks any boundaries, barriers, belief systems.”
In those early days in Brooklyn, Chun saw kimchi popping up in unexpected places: on grilled cheese sandwiches, perhaps, or as an optional topping at a taco truck. Today, her own customers reach out to tell her how they’ve experimented with Mother in Law’s products, like mixing gochujang with cream cheese to create a new favorite condiment.
While she values the tradition of Korean cuisine, she also seems fine with these new approaches to using Korean pantry staples. ”When I think about what I set out to do and what inspires me, it’s really about sharing that authenticity,” she says. “There’s a tradition of fermentation that is part of kimchi and gochujang that becomes this new language that people are really embracing. That’s the most exciting thing.”
“Gochujang is so ubiquitous because it’s not a hot sauce, it’s used more like the way people use miso,” Chun says. “You can put a little dab of it on anything you eat.”
Gochugaru is a Korean seasoning made of high-quality, dried red chili flakes. Smoky, spicy, and sweet, this seasoning can be used on many of your favorite savory dishes.
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