Bloom where you're planted, advises the adage. Well, sometimes you're planted in front of the refrigerator with the door agape, basking in its chill and looking for a quick snack to power you through the next deadline. I am, of course, speaking from my own experience.
On a recent morning, I conducted a similar ritual. I held a ripe farmers market tomato in one hand and, naturally, reached for the squeeze bottle of Duke's mayo with the other. Eyeing the sriracha next to it, I remembered I had something even better on the fridge shelf: a package of six kimchi cucumbers from Shilla Oriental Market.
I smothered sourdough toast with mayo. On one slice, I stacked two thick slabs of tomato. I then pulled one small kimchi cucumber from the clear plastic box, shaking out any drippings from the chili. Cross-cut at one end, each pickle is stuffed with thinly sliced chive and carrot prepared kimchi style, with garlic, fish sauce, red chili powder, and a touch of sugar. The cucumber itself retains a fresh, verdant color and a crunch. I sliced one in half and gently settled each piece into the mayonnaise. I added a leaf of romaine lettuce for good measure—and more mayo. There was my blooming flower: a crisp stack of Durham summer. And it tasted glorious.
Still, I felt uneasy about this untraditional fusion as I drove back out to Highway 55 to find out who made this kimchi—and if this sort of medley would sit well with the maker.
There I met Sunnyeo Bak. At least twice a week, she makes five to seven cases of kimchi varieties for Shilla Market, which she has owned for six years with her husband and daughters. One of them, Jane Kim, helped interpret our conversation. Situated next to Vit Goal Tofu, the small market caters to Korean clientele, with a smattering of Chinese, Japanese, and Thai items.
I usually go in there for big bags of coarse sea salt, even bigger bags of rice, the occasional Panda snack, and to peer into the small kimchi cooler in back, adjacent to the produce.
What catches my eye is the verdurous hue of the cucumber kimchi, which Kim later explains is pronounced oee-soh-bah-kee in Korean. Bak says that the supply of firm Persian cucumbers has been precarious during this particularly wet summer; finding the product at her market can be hit or miss.
When I ask Kim to explain my mayo-laden spin on the kimchi to her mother, she pauses and exclaims, "Oh, wow" before interpreting it for Bak.
Bak thinks a moment, then relays an entire story to her daughter, who grows even more surprised.
"She says that makes sense!," Kim exclaims. "In Korea, she remembers an Italian restaurant with kimchi on their pizza. It goes really well with cheese. Any kimchi is a good way to ease [points to her stomach] oily foods."
I am relieved. And Bak laughs at where all this food has taken us, from an Italian restaurant in Korea to a photo of her kimchi in a Durham newspaper.
This article appeared in print with the headline "As Southern as Shilla Market"