When Hyun Hwang was a little girl, each November her mother made enough kimchi to last a year. In their rural South Korean community, neighbors and relatives pitched in to prepare heaps of the salted, spicy cabbage dish, then dug holes and buried it so it could ferment as the months went by.
“It takes a village to do it,” said Hwang, now 67 and a resident of South Jersey. “Everyone didn’t have a refrigerator, so you had to put it in the ground.”
Modern technology and conveniences have simplified the process, and now Hwang makes kimchi all year long. Mostly, it goes to feed diners at SouthGate, the restaurant that her son, Peter, opened several years ago at 18th and Lombard Streets.
“He could not trust anybody else,” Hwang said of her son’s decision to put her in charge of one of the most crucial condiment and side dishes for any Korean establishment.
With the opening ceremonies for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, just a few days away, Hwang took time to talk about her favorite Korean flavors. She was assisted by Matt Delatour, chef at SouthGate, where Hwang’s influence is woven through much of the menu. Together they shared some recipes that are simple enough to make at home, and that offer a window into the most delicious meals Korea has to offer.
She was the third of eight children, and grew up in Gwangju province in South Korea, an area known for its spicy flavors and kimchi in particular. With so many to feed, each of their family meals was the size of a feast. Every Korean family uses its own personal blend of seasonings; Hwang’s mother made her own sauces and spices, like her own blend of gochujang, Korean chili paste.
“My mom, she’s 94. She still makes kimchi,” Hwang said. “She’s famous for her cooking in Korea. When she moved here, there were people so sad they were losing her cooking. She is like a national treasure.”
Hwang immigrated to Philadelphia in 1976 and became a U.S. citizen more than 35 years ago. She first worked as a nurse; later she and her husband opened Oh So Good, a deli and buffet restaurant in Center City.
Korean flavors are about spice, Hwang said, like garlic and fish sauce, and a lot of vegetables, because historically, meat wasn’t always available. Her kimchi, made from heads of napa cabbage, carrots, and daikon radish, remains time-intensive, but she offered instructions with shortcuts to make a quicker version. Treating the cabbage gently is important, she said. Hwang tucks sea salt into the pockets of the leaves and seasons them with a paste made from garlic, ginger, fish sauce, scallions, chili flakes and sugar, working the mixture in gently.
“My mom always said she’s massaging it,” she said. “You have to tuck the leaves around, wrap it like a baby. Then, later, it tastes better.”
After a few days of drying in a sealed container in a cool, dark place, fermentation will begin. Then kimchi can last for months stored in the refrigerator.
The cuisine relies on many of the same flavors, Hwang said, mixed in different ways so that a number of dishes can be assembled from the same shelf of ingredients. One popular side dish, which Southgate has turned into an entree, is japchae, a bowl of glass noodles with mushrooms, scallions, carrots, onions and spinach. Cooked with soy sauce and sriracha, and coated with sesame oil, it is rich and savory.
Bulgogi, strips of beef marinated in spices and grilled and often served over rice, is another staple. The marinade, made from soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, mirin, sugar and more, gives the meat a distinctive sweet-tangy flavor. Bulgogi can also be served with bibimbap, the ultimate Korean comfort-food dish of vegetables, gochujang, and a fried egg served over rice. Many restaurants serve it in a heavy stoneware bowl with crisped-up rice on the bottom and the vegetables arranged separately over the top, but in homes like Hwang’s, it’s all mixed together in a pan on a hot stove and dished out like fried rice.
“There are no rules,” she said. “Put anything in it, and just stir.”
Hwang said she is proud the rest of the world will get a chance to know South Korea in the weeks to come. The last time the Olympics were held in that region, the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, her homeland was still a developing country.
“Since then, the country has done very well,” she said. “When you go there now, everything is so new. The trains, so new. All my friends there, they are living better than me.”