In one of his first assignments at General Mills, nutritionist Colby Darling faced a huge challenge: Make kimchi — the peppery, smelly, fermented cabbage that’s a staple of Korean cuisine — work as a flavor for a tortilla chip.
Foodmakers are crossing more boundaries than ever in the unending quest for new products. At a food convention in Chicago last week, the maker of Jelly Bellys introduced jelly beans flavored like draft beer. Sriracha has been added to vodka, bacon to Ritz crackers and kale to, well, too many things.
Few flavors, however, are as extreme and challenging as kimchi. Koreans know recipes for about 200 types of fermented vegetables, most using cabbage but some based on radishes or other roots. The most common version takes days to make and is difficult to get just so. But when it is done well, kimchi is like ketchup in packing several tastes — sweet, sour, spicy, salty, bitter — in every bite.
“Kimchi is unique,” Darling said. “Maybe some people’s first experience with it will be in the chip and lead them to the actual dish.”
The evolution of kimchi is a snapshot of how flavors go from niche to trendy to mainstream. And its embrace by a major foodmaker like Golden Valley-based General Mills Inc. is a sign that kimchi is moving beyond a circle of foodies, urban hipsters and the Korean diaspora and onto the path that Mexican salsa or Greek yogurt took before it.
Korean immigrants and Korean-Americans are mainly responsible for the migration of kimchi out of Korean-only restaurants and into other foods in the U.S.
In New York, chef David Chang built his Momofuku group of upscale restaurants around refashioned Korean flavors and, in Los Angeles, people follow Twitter to find chef Roy Choi’s fleet of taco trucks that feature Korean barbecued meats and vegetables. In Minneapolis, Thomas and Kat Kim make two kinds of kimchi at their restaurant, Rabbit Hole, where the menu is inspired by Korean street foods. In St. Paul, a new diner called Cook offers a Korean pancake at breakfast and burger at lunch.
But the South Korean government also has played a role, eager for Korean cuisine to become as widely consumed as Japan’s, its economic role model. It spent tens of millions of dollars in recent years to promote kimchi and other Korean flavors, including flying in chefs from other countries for cooking contests. Two years ago, it helped underwrite “The Kimchi Chronicles,” a PBS series that featured noted French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and his wife, Marja, a Korean adoptee, and celebrity guests making Korean recipes.
“Clearly, kimchi has made it into the American mixing pot,” said Charles Pinsky, the show’s executive producer and veteran of other PBS food shows. “If you lived in New York or L.A. a few years ago, you could see it starting. Now, you see hot dogs with kimchi on top.”
Gateway to new tastes
For giant foodmakers, chips are a particularly easy vehicle for new tastes.
Foodmakers at the Chicago conference unveiled dozens of chips infused with pumpkin seeds, seaweed, pomegranate and other new ingredients. Frito-Lay Inc., the biggest seller of chips, for a third year is running a $1 million promotion in which it will develop a chip from flavor combinations submitted online by consumers. A Wisconsin woman won last year’s prize with her suggestion for a cheesy garlic-bread chip.
General Mills invests tens of millions of dollars annually to develop new products, from cereals that were the company’s foundation to cake mixes, ice cream, granola bars and near-meals like its Helper mixes for beef and chicken. In Japan, it recently started selling vegetable-and-fruit blends of Häagen-Dazs ice cream. Salty snacks and chips are relatively new for the company.
Two years ago, General Mills bought a fast-growing, Boston-based snack company called Food Should Taste Good, which had created a premium image for its tortilla chips by relying on simple recipes and unique flavors like olive and chocolate. Company founder Pete Lescoe suggested kimchi as a potential new flavor at the time of the transaction.
“He was talking about his favorite foods and kimchi was on the list,” said Keith Dalziel, a General Mills marketing manager.
The work fell to Darling, a 24-year-old nutritionist who had spent just a year at Food Should Taste Good before the sale. He moved to Minneapolis and had at his disposal the vast kitchens of General Mills, where about 200 new products are cooked up each year.
His first step was to develop his own recipe for kimchi, something he’d eaten often enough in Boston but had never attempted to make. He decided to concentrate on the most common version, which is made from Napa cabbage that is brined, slathered with garlic, onion, ginger, fish sauce and red pepper, then fermented.
“I tried different kimchis, from the weak spiciness to the full screaming hot side of it, very vinegary, not very vinegary,” Darling said.
Many components of kimchi, such as garlic and onion, were already commonly used to make nacho and barbecue chips. For Darling, the mystery to solve was the grassy taste of vegetable. For that, he settled on dried cabbage powder.
For a year, Darling experimented with kimchi ingredients while also working on guacamole and falafel flavors. When he was ready to test a batch, he called all members of the Food Should Taste Good team, including marketers and executives, for a taste.
“The challenge was to make sure all the ingredients shine in the right way in the finished product so there is the right amount of heat to the right amount of vinegar to the right amount of garlic,” he said. “If you have it slightly off balance, then you can tell.”
Like the perfect pie crust
Kimchi’s move beyond its traditional place as a Korean condiment has more typically happened at the micro-level.
When Ann Kim opened Pizzeria Lola in Minneapolis three years ago, she needed a few extra pizzas to round out her menu. So she put kimchi on one and planned to sell it for just a few weeks as an attention-getter.
“People loved it,” she said. “A lot of them said it was the first time they had ever had kimchi.”
Before deciding to leave it on the menu, Kim had to figure out how to incorporate kimchi-making into the kitchen routine. Initially, her mother made a batch every few days. To come up a recipe the staff could use, Kim videotaped her mother and measured the ingredients. “If you talk to most Koreans, it’s not about exact measurements,” Kim said. “It’s like trying to get a perfect pie crust.”
Kim and her staff now prepare about 100 pounds of kimchi weekly. Still, she and other Korean-Americans are happily surprised to see so many people eating it now.
“I was embarrassed as a child eating Korean food. My friends were having Chef Boyardee,” she said. Her mother made kimchi in the back yard. “We used our kiddie pools to brine the cabbage,” she said.
Kwonsik Park, a Minneapolis accountant who moved from South Korea 13 years ago, remembers his college roommates’ complaints about the strong odor of the kimchi he kept in a refrigerator they shared.
“I used a lot of plastic wrap around the containers,” he said.
Target: food talkers
Back at General Mills, when the Food Should Taste Good team ultimately approved Darling’s recipe for a kimchi-flavored chip, they rolled it out with no effort to explain the flavor. “Unique foods start off being a little bit intimidating,” Darling said. “But as they get out there, people say, ‘Hey have you tried this?’ ”
General Mills initially sent the kimchi chip to stores and co-ops that specialize in natural and organic foods, which marketer Dalziel said tend to attract “people who want to talk about their food.”
With prices around $3.50 for a 5.5-ounce bag, early sales have been encouraging, Dalziel said. “We fully expect it will become a mainstream product.”