“My dream is, and has always been, to make good kimchi. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing someone sample my kimchi for the first time.”
— Chong Choi
Kimchi is touted as a superfood found at posh eateries, but for Korean people, the traditional dish goes back centuries. Chong Choi, owner of Choi’s Kimchi, grew up in Korea and relishes the time she spent with her mother learning to make the classic dish.
Choi immigrated to the United States with her siblings as a young adult, . While frequenting the Portland Farmers Market, she was reminded of days in Korea, shopping at open-air markets, and seeing buckets of electric red kimchi. No one sold kimchi at the farmers market, and grocery stores didn’t offer local, satisfactory options. “You can see [the] vibrancy and flavor of kimchi in its color before you even taste it,” Choi says. “I knew I could do better than the kimchi I saw in the markets.”
With the help of her son Matt, Choi secured a stall at the Portland Farmers Market in 2011. She remembers the details of their first day distinctly: 150 jars of eagerly-prepared kimchi sold out by noon. Choi and her son didn’t look back.
“When you’re an immigrant or person of color, your chances are limited so you say yes to everything,” says Matt. “When you say yes enough times, a few of those things will land into something bigger. That’s what we did.” Soon after, a boutique grocery store offered to carry their products. Unlike farmers markets, wholesalers required product testing and labeling. The Chois were shocked when the first round of testing, however, indicated the kimchi didn’t pass.
Matt immediately started questioning their viability, but Choi didn’t believe the results. The fermented cabbage dish was generally unknown to the public, so she insisted the product be re-tested, not at the pre-fermentation stage when, she says, “that is just a jar of vegetables,” but after it had settled. “Give the kimchi time to become kimchi.” Choi was right—in later tests, the kimchi readily passed.
Today, Choi’s Kimchi is prepared in two production facilities and offers several kimchi varieties in addition to sauces and private-label fermented vegetables. Choi says, “My dream is, and has always been, to make good kimchi. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing someone sample my kimchi for the first time.”
Author: Amanda Park
Photos: Kim Nguyen
Published: February 2019