Literally and figuratively, kimchi is hot.
Korea's national dish of spicy fermented vegetables, kimchi is increasingly becoming popular among food enthusiasts, chefs and home cooks who use it to add texture, tang and a spicy kick to everything from soups and sandwiches to hot dogs and tacos.
There are hundreds of varieties of kimchi, but it's commonly made with Napa cabbage and seasoned with chile, garlic, salt, ginger and other ingredients. Depending on what's in it and how long it's left to ferment, it offers a range of flavors — spicy, sour, savory, sweet and salty. Its distinctive tanginess increases the longer it ferments.
In its 2012 food trends report, the New York-based food and restaurant consulting firm Baum and Whiteman said kimchi “might be the ingredient of the year.” It falls under two categories that the company identified as growing trends: pickled produce and Korean cuisine.
In recent years, kimchi (also spelled kim chee) has gone from the shelves of Asian markets to mainstream grocery stores, including Baker's and Whole Foods. You can find kimchi fried rice in the frozen section at Trader Joe's. Downtown Food Mart, a convenience store at 16th and Harney Streets, sells homemade kimchi.
And it's no longer found just on the menus of Korean restaurants. Kimchi is featured in dishes served at food trucks and in fine-dining establishments across the country. Several chefs in Omaha use it at their restaurants.
It made Health magazine's list of the top five “world's healthiest foods” because it's rich in vitamins and low in fat, and aids in digestion. Kimchi contains healthy lactobacillus bacteria — a probiotic also found in yogurt — due to the natural fermentation process.
In Korea, no meal is complete without it, said Tom Yoo, a Korean native and owner of Midwest Oriental Foods near 84th Street and West Center Road.
There are numerous ways to enjoy kimchi, Yoo said.
You can eat it as a side dish, use it as a condiment, stir it into soups, mix it into savory Korean pancakes, plop it on top of pizzas and toss it into stir-fries.
While cabbage is the most common kind, you can make kimchi with any vegetable. Yoo sells a dozen types of kimchi at his store, including varieties made with turnips, radishes, cucumbers and leeks.
Not all kimchi is fiery hot. A version called white kimchi is seasoned without chili pepper. While it still has a garlicky, tangy flavor, it lacks the heat of most kimchi.
For some people, the smell is a turnoff, said Yoo, who described kimchi's distinct, pungent aroma as “a strong pickled smell.”
The taste, he added, is an acquired one: “You either like it or you don't.”
Ben Maides loves it.
The Omaha resident discovered kimchi while living and working in northern California. Maides makes it from scratch — he adapted a traditional recipe from a Korean friend. He likes being able to control the spice and make it as hot or as sweet as he wants.
Maides craves kimchi's crunch, brininess and unique flavor and almost always has a jar of homemade kimchi in his fridge.
He adds it to noodle soups and stir-fries, puts it in tacos and purees it in a blender to make a dipping sauce. He spoons it over rice and eats it straight from the jar.
“I go crazy with the stuff,” he said. “It adds a whole other dimension. There's so much depth of flavor.”
Kimchi takes planning and prep work, and cooks can find some ingredients only at Asian markets. Maides' version takes several days to make.
“It's a long process and a lot of work,” he said, “but well worth the wait.”
For those who are less patient, there are faster methods.
At Lot 2 Restaurant and Wine Bar at 62nd and Maple Streets, executive chef Joel Mahr makes a “quick kimchi” in about 40 minutes. Instead of fermenting it, he uses vinegar to make it sour.
Mahr marinates Napa cabbage, carrots, scallions and grated Granny Smith apples in a mixture of cider vinegar, ginger, garlic, fish sauce and sambal (an Asian chili-based sauce).
He uses the kimchi in Lot 2's take on banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich. The restaurant's version features pork meatballs, kimchi, mint, cilantro, pickled cucumber and spicy aioli.
“It adds a level of texture, spice and an acidic note,” Mahr said.
Block 16 chefs/owners Jessica Joyce and Paul Urban are big fans of the pungent pickle. At their gourmet street-food restaurant at 16th and Farnam Streets, they've used kimchi in pork sandwiches, hot dogs and a Korean-inspired vegan wrap, among other items.
They'll either use kimchi from their friend Maides, make their own, or buy it at the nearby Downtown Food Mart, where the owner makes it from scratch.
Urban said he likes kimchi because it's loaded with flavor and versatile enough to complement everything from seafood to pork.
At J. Coco near 52nd and Leavenworth Streets, Korean-style short rib tacos are among the popular menu items. The restaurant sells about 18 orders a day of the tacos: three corn tortillas filled with tender, shredded beef short ribs, topped with kimchi.
The slightly spicy, tart kimchi has enough zing to cut through the richness of the beef and adds texture and color, said chef-owner Jennifer Coco.
The restaurant makes its own kimchi using Napa cabbage, scallions, cilantro, carrots, rice vinegar and Korean chili paste. The mixture ferments for about two days.
“It's very versatile,” Coco said. “I've seen people make quesadillas with it or pulled pork sandwiches. It has a depth to it that other condiments don't have.”