When she'd embark on days-long kimchi-making sprees, Kim Han liked to put her young sons Leemo and Leeto to work: The little boys would grate daikon. Later, they became her tasters, bringing an all-important second opinion to the table.
"There's always somebody that cooks and somebody that tastes, that's how the family is created," says Leeto Han. "With every family there's a main focal point and with us, literally that's all we talk about – food."
Now in their 20s, the brothers helm Oddseoul, a hugely popular Korean-American restaurant on Ossington Avenue in Toronto: Leemo is chef and Leeto runs bar and front of house. Here, their mother's spicy, pungent kimchi recipe adds kick to Oddseoul's Korean takes on cheesesteaks and other trashy classics from Philadelphia, where the boys grew up.
"Everybody has their own favourite kimchi within their family. Mine was my mother's. She got it passed down from her mother, generation to generation. I just want to keep that going," says Leemo Han. "A lot of my inspiration comes from memories, from before, from our past when we ate together. You feel it, it's home."
The brothers were born in Toronto but the family moved to New Jersey when the boys were toddlers, later settling in Philadelphia. Here, their parents toiled long hours running a beauty-supply business, but everyone always came together at dinner time. The brothers moved back to Toronto about a decade ago, opening Oddseoul in January, 2013.
The family lineage hails from the southern Korean province of Jeollanam-do, where kimchi is spicier and sweeter than many other versions served up throughout the country. The Hans' kimchi consists of brined cabbage, homemade rice paste, daikon, garlic, ginger and fermented krill. Few Korean recipes include precise measurements, explains Leeto Han; most cook instead by "son-mat," which translates literally to "taste of the hand."
Kim Han, 53, says her tricks are pears, apples and kombu (kelp) water. She keeps her recipe in a little notebook; her son has it copied and posted all over his kitchen. At the brothers' first Toronto restaurant, Swish by Han, their mother initially supplied large batches of the Korean staple. (Did they pay her? "Nothing's free," quips Leemo Han.) Now she will occasionally prepare the rice-paste base for the kimchi at Oddseoul. The chef hasn't tampered with his mother's recipe: "Why change something that's already good? We evolve it into different dishes."
But like his mother who'd churn out seasonal varieties spiked with broccoli, cucumber and persimmon, Leemo Han does play with the ingredients, including wild-leek kimchi and kimchi gazpacho, a refreshing white broth made with radishes. "I learn a lot of things from him," his mother says about Oddseoul's surprising combinations (think kimchi salad with crumbled Stilton and fermented Korean pears). Today, her favourite dishes at the restaurant are kimchi fried rice and kimchi poutine.
"I think we cook for you more than you cook for us now, huh?" says Leeto, nudging his mom.
"Yeah," she says, her eyes crinkling. "I'm really happy."
Making kimchi the Kim Han way
Kim Han starts with a full head of napa cabbage, rubbing it with coarse sea salt and leaving it to dry brine for no less than four hours. This draws water out from the cabbage, making it crunchier. For her kimchi paste, Han combines rice flour, red chili flakes, garlic, ginger, grated daikon, puréed apples and pears, fermented krill and kombu (or kelp) water, otherwise known as dashi broth. The krill speeds up the fermentation process; the dashi broth deepens the flavour. Once brined, each cabbage leaf is smothered with the paste, all while keeping the head of cabbage whole.
Her son Leemo Han, co-owner and chef at Oddseoul, says fermentation times are key: For stews and fried rice he prefers it "really funky;" for grilled pork belly, it must be fresh. At the busy restaurant, they let it sit out at room temperature for one night, then store it in a special kimchi fridge. "Kimchi fridges control humidity levels more than temperature," says brother and co-owner Leeto Han. Many Koreans have kimchi fridges; before the advent of this appliance, holes would be dug in the earth and kimchi jars stored underground. "That's the best kimchi," says their mom. She stresses that bad kimchi shortcuts are too much sugar and the use of fish sauce, which can give kimchi an overfermented flavour.