Mass-appeal kimchi brings woman successJINCHEON, South Chungcheong
A girl who grew up in a rural village in North Chungcheong province was sickly since birth. She could not eat meat or fish, and was sensitive to spicy food. But her mother prepared the best kind of kimchi, and she never ate a meal without some fermented cabbage on the side.
If the kimchi tasted a bit too sour or too spicy, she could not eat it at all. So the girl’s mother made sure that her homemade kimchi was appropriate for the taste buds of her delicate and fastidious daughter. The kimchi was the only food that her daughter had no trouble digesting. Years later, this girl went on to found a kimchi-making company whose pungent product is chomped at Seoul’s finest hotels and even the Blue House dinner table.
Kim Soon-ja never once envisioned a life centered on kimchi. But today, as the president of Hansung Food Co., Ltd., Korea’s largest kimchi wholesale manufacturer, the 49-year old lives, eats and breathes the stuff.
“I never go a day without eating kimchi. I taste kimchi made at our factories and sample those from other companies, plus have kimchi at mealtime,” she says. Kimchi is as synonymous with Korea as Coca-Cola is with the United States. Ms. Kim prides herself in spurring interest in this centuries-old comestible.
Inside Hansung’s factory in Jincheon, North Chungcheong province, Ms. Kim and two executives put on gowns and caps in preparation for a tour of the plant. She starts by inspecting stacks of Chinese cabbage to ensure their leaves are clean and healthy. Then Ms. Kim joins a line of workers nearby by donning rubber gloves and slathering a spiced red pepper paste onto, into and across the leaves, which move slowly down a belt.
“This requires great skill ― to swathe just the right amount of ingredients inside each leaf so that it won’t taste too bland or too spicy,” she says, while rubbing the reddish paste on the salted cabbages. Bits of red paste fly onto her face, but she disregards them.
Entering a gargantuan freezer, Ms. Kim inspects cabbage stacks for the time they were received to determine their ripeness. She orders workers to double-check that deliveries will be made on time.
So what makes this woman a kimchi pro? It may relate to her sensitive tongue. “I believe I have this innate ability to taste kimchi,” she says. “By taking one bite, I know its level of saltiness, why one kimchi is less fermented than another. I know what temperature is best for freezing, and how ingredients must be mixed to create the perfect kimchi.” Smiling, she adds, “They call me Dr. Kimchi.”
It is perhaps ironic that Ms. Kim prepared kimjang, or homemade kimchi, just once before launching her business in 1986. Her first batch was a winner; after tasting some, her relatives and neighbors were hooked and they soon returned for another batch.
“That’s what led me to take the bold step to start selling kimchi to the masses ― my first success,” Ms. Kim says. Seventeen years ago, when she opened her first kimchi shop in Daerim-dong, in southwest Seoul, Ms. Kim never guessed the business would grow so large.
“Back in the mid-1980s, no one thought selling kimchi to the masses would be feasible. Kimchi was thought to be something that must be homemade, not manufactured. Factory-produced kimchi was thought to be unclean and too unnatural to sell to the general public. I changed that perception by selling kimchi that tasted good enough and was clean enough to be homemade.”
Word got around that Hansung kimchi tasted remarkably good for factory fare, and before long, hotels, government agencies and companies began ordering the product en masse. In 1988, Hansung became an official provider of kimchi for the Summer Olympics in Seoul, and the company began diversifying its product line to include pickled radish kimchi and white cabbage kimchi in addition to the staple. Unlike other factory-made kimchi sold at the retail level, Hansung never advertised widely. But as Hansung’s reputation spread through the grapevine, wholesale orders poured in from major hotels, home shopping TV and supermarkets. From 1992 on, Hansung has counted presidents and other Blue House VIPs as regular consumers.
“What differentiates us from the many other kimchi manufacturers is that we focus on the ingredients. Even if the cost of raw materials goes up, we use the best ingredients.”
Even if ingredients are of high quality, how could Hansung pin down one flavor that suits a majority of kimchi lovers? After all, residents of different regions of Korea have differing tastes in kimchi, based on geographical factors such as whether they live inland, or near the sea: some like it sour, some spicy, some bland.
Answers Ms. Kim: “I created kimchi that is standardized Korean, which all Koreans can, and will find suitable.”
Jo Jae-sun, a professor emeritus at Kyung Hee University and a renowned scholar of kimchi, says Hansung’s products “are good enough to be on my dinner table. Not only is the taste agreeable, but also the cleanliness is exceptional. Many people are concerned that kimchi made in factories is prone to hygienic defects but I’ve visited their factory sites and I trust what is served.”
In Hansung’s early years, Ms. Kim encountered many difficulties. Some of those memories make her cringe.
“One summer in the late 1980s, flooding caused agricultural prices to skyrocket. We mortgaged my house and my parents’ house to get loans to buy cabbage. That year I incurred the worst deficit ever,” she says with a sigh. From overwork and chronic illness such as digestive problems, Ms. Kim was hospitalized for 20 months in the late 1990s.
The company has grown at a steady 20 percent annual rate since the early 1990s, and now in addition to the standby of Chinese cabbage kimchi, it manufactures more than 24 types of kimchi, and 35 side dishes such as sliced squid, black beans, pickled clams and fish gills.
Frozen cutlets are another specialty. They even produce kimchi refrigerators. But Ms. Kim has paid a price for her success.
“Ever since I began my business, I haven’t slept more than three hours a day,” Ms. Kim says, attributing her insomnia to her intense, hands-on participation, from inventing new recipes to schmoozing with clients.
Ms. Kim has obtained 12 patents for her numerous kimchi inventions, such as fusion kimchi, broccoli kimchi, seaweed kimchi and even wormwood kimchi. Hansung landed the gold prize at an intellectual assets competition in Singapore for her sesame leaf and cabbage kimchi. Says Ms. Kim: “I will never stop coming up with creative ways of making kimchi.”
Though focused on the local market for two decades, Ms. Kim now eyes overseas markets, such as Japan and China, for expansion. She envisions kimchi becoming a household item in far-flung areas of the world. “I don’t understand why they don’t offer kimchi when we order pizza,” Ms. Kim says. “They give pickles and radishes, so why not kimchi?
“I want to be remembered as a person who led kimchi culture, someone who was instrumental in the globalization of kimchi.”
by Choi Jie-ho