Korean ferments are gaining popularity amongst U.S. consumers, and Korean agriculture leaders are trying to increase exports of Korean-made fermented foods to the U.S. At the first Korean Fermented Food Forum this month in Washington D.C., industry leaders shared their expertise on the future of Korean ferments in the American market.
“If you’re going to look at and work with fermented foods, you really have to look at Korea because that’s where all the action is, that’s where all the good food is,” says Fred Breidt, PhD, microbiologist with the USDA (and a TFA Science Advisor). Breidt was the keynote speaker at the event. “It’s becoming more and more popular to use these kinds of foods for their tremendous flavors that they can impart to food products and their health benefits as well.”
The forum was sponsored by Korea’s Ministry of Agriculture and the Korea Agro-Fisheries & Food Trade Corporation (aT Corporation). It coincided with celebrations earlier that week for November 11 being designated as Kimchi Day being in Washington D.C. and Virginia. They join New York and California, which ratified Kimchi Day in the respective states in 2021. The aT Corporation is actively leading efforts for all U.S. states to designate a Kimchi Day.
“With the growing global popularity of Korean food, I am delighted and eager to promote awareness and educate consumers on the health benefits of kimchi and Korean fermented food products, such as kimchi, fermented soybeans, salted seafood and vinegar,” says Choon Jin Kim, president of the aT Corporation. He called kimchi “Korea’s staple fermented soul food. I believe the reason that Americans enjoy kimchi so much is that the many qualities of Korean fermented foods, such as its excellent nutritional value, health benefits and taste, are beginning to shine.”
Sales of Korean fermented foods are growing exponentially in the U.S. According to U.S. retail sales figures tracked by The Fermentation Association and SPINS data, kimchi increased in sales by 22% in 2022, totaling $37.56 million in sales. Sales of gochujang grew 8% in 2022, totaling $6.57 million in sales.
“It’s a wave that’s been coming for a long time,” said Rob Rubba, executive chef and partner at Oyster Oyster restaurant in D.C. “Where someone who was previously omnivore like myself, who is seeking depth of flavor in something you might not associate with a vegetable, you can achieve that through fermented foods.”
When asked why fermentation grew so much during the Covid-19 pandemic, Amelia Nielson-Stowell, TFA’s editor, says fermentation touches multiple global food movements. Fermented foods are healthy, natural, green, innovative, artisanal, flavorful and functional.
“Fermentation is not a trend, it’s the oldest food craft, it’s a traditional food art with history in every culture around the world and it’s absolutely having a resurgence here in the U.S.,” Nielsen-Stowell says.
She points out that, while kimchi grew 22% in sales this year, it’s increased market size to 16% of the fermented vegetables category. In 2021, kimchi sales grew 90%, but were only 7% of the fermented vegetables category.
“More brands tuned into kimchi’s popularity, so we’re seeing more market saturation,” Nielsen-Stowell says. “There’s huge opportunities for more Korean fermented foods here in the U.S.”
Kheedim Oh attribute’s part of kimchi’s success to Korean agricultural leaders. Oh, the chief minister of New York-based brand Mama O’s Premium Kimchi, says “We have to give credit to the Korean government and groups like the aT because the Korean government recognizes the soft power of promoting.”
When he began Mama O’s 20 years ago, there were few American-made kimchi companies. Now, “there’s like a new kimchi company everyday. I don’t think it’s going to stop because kimchi is the best food ever, it goes with everything.”
Julie Sproesser agrees. Sproesser, the Interim Executive Director of Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, says she’s seen Korean ingredients and Korean hybrid restaurants across the D.C., Maryland and Virginia areas increase in the last seven years.
“It seems like it’s not an accident and not going anywhere,” she adds.
During his presentation, Breidt shared an overview on Korean fermented foods, including kimchi, gochujang, ssamjang and doenjang.
Kimchi’s origin begins 11,000 years ago to the start of one of the world’s “first technologies invented” – pottery. Koreans discovered adding veggies with salt and water could preserve food during a time there was no refrigeration.
Scientists are continuing to learn about the significant health benefits of the probiotic-rich, lactic acid bacteria in fermented foods. Breidt says kimchi is especially beneficial because it has 10 million to 1 billion live lactic acid bacteria per gram. Through emerging genomic tools, science is now linking specific lactic acid bacteria strains in fermented foods to health benefits.
There are challenges to selling in the U.S. market, though. Briedt says many Americans like a lightly-fermented kimchi (with a pH in the high 3’s or low 4’s), but once fermentation has begun, it’s hard to stop unless it is refrigerated.
“It’s difficult to get lightly-fermented kimchi that’s imported from somewhere else. You pretty much have to get it locally or near the source of where it’s being produced,” he says, noting because kimchi is a live, fermented product, it doesn’t travel well. “The flavors will change over time, and the evolution of these microbial communities is going to proceed unless you somehow sterilize the product, which is really counter to the whole idea of what excites people about kimchi.”
The environmental factors around fermented vegetables must be meticulously monitored to produce a consistent product. Like the freshness of the ingredients, the correct size of the fermentation vessel, the cut of cabbage and the proper sterilization of cutting machines.
“Having access to high-quality products here I think is really boosting this, and it’s going to keep going as long as we continue those efforts,” Breidt adds.
The 2022 Korean Fermented Food Forum was the first, though it is expected to recur annually, coinciding with Kimchi Day. Jeanie Chang was the moderator of the forum, a licensed clinician who uses Korean dramas as a way to explore mental health through her Instagram, Noona’s Noonchi.