The 20-year-old Eun Hee An would never have entertained running a mini kimchi factory. When she moved from Korea to Sydney twelve years ago, the chef had one goal and one goal only: to be a master of French cuisine.
She chased this dream, clocking up kitchen time at Claude's and Glass Brasserie, before feeling the pull toward the Korean dishes her grandmother fed her, three meals a day, during An's childhood. "The more I grew up, I realised: I need rice today. I need kimchi today. I'd go back to my memories and started to miss [that food]," says An.
This nostalgia culminated in Moon Park, the new-school Korean restaurant she opened with partner Ben Sears and sommelier Ned Brooks in 2013. "It was my soul restaurant," says An.
And kimchi is the heart of Korean food; without it, a Korean restaurant cannot be. In the lead up to Moon Park's début, she phoned her 98-year-old grandmother for the family's kimchi secrets. "She doesn't really have a [written] recipe, so I asked her: what do you put in it?"
The fermented cabbage is the star product of Moon Mart, An's line of small-batch east-Asian pickles and condiments. Since closing Paper Bird (the follow-up restaurant to Moon Park) last year, she's been baking at Bourke Street Bakery in Potts Point, and cooking at Ezra where Sears is head chef. But once again, she felt the pull of Korean food, and more specifically, kimchi.
It's a one-woman show at Moon Mart. An is maker of its kimchi and chojang (Korean hot sauce) et al; she's also the social media manager, website builder and label designer. (On the day of the interview for this story, she's running late, delayed by the task of slapping Moon Mart stickers onto jars.) "When COVID happened, I decided to do this little project. It's still serious, but not heavy. It's fun-serious."
Kimchi recipes vary from region to region, family to family, and even within families. Her maternal grandmother's kimchi is light, clean-tasting; her paternal grandmother's version produces deep and complex results.
It's the latter's recipe that An uses for Moon Mart, and there are some hard and fast rules. First, only the freshest of fresh wombok will do. The colour is a dead giveaway: the outer leaves should be vibrant and green, the inner core a bright yellow. Then, use your ears. "When you cut it, it needs to have a sharp, crunchy sound. I've cut so many cabbages, I've started to hear the difference," says An. Your nose too: it should release a "fresh", slightly sweet fragrance.
The level of detail and consideration to every part of her kimchi-making process is staggering. The wombok leaves are submerged in brine, then thoroughly washed and even more thoroughly drained. They're never, ever squeezed dry as this removes the cabbage's water content and results in limp kimchi. This soaking-and-drying step can take up to five hours – fine for the home cook, near torture for one woman and 30 cabbages. "One night I was here for hours ... I almost cried," says An.
Next, she makes her own dashi from scratch, which is used to cook the glutinous rice to a congee-like consistency. The rice is seasoned with two types of fish sauce – myeolchi-aekjeot, made from anchovies, and kkanari-aekjeot, from sand lance. Plus, saeu-jeot (salted krill), garlic and ginger, juice squeezed from grated daikon, maesil (a sweet-sour plum syrup) made from organic Australian plums, and gochugaru (dried chilli flakes) from the Hawkesbury region. The final paste is mixed through the wombok leaves and left to ferment in glass jars for a month.
(An would love to use an onggi, the Korean earthenware traditionally used to make ferments and pickles, but hasn't been able to get her hands on one just yet. "My grandma won't approve, but my mum might – she's a terrible cook.")
Onggi or no, the result is a balanced kimchi that's fermented and funky, but with good body, crisp and crunch. She makes a "temple" vegan version too, with dried persimmon stepping in for the brawn of the garlic and seafood-derived ingredients. (Certain branches of Buddhism ban the consumption of meat products, garlic, onions and other alliums.)
The art of kimchi-making is "deceptively complex", says An. At times, she rankles at some commercial kimchi available at boutique supermarkets. "You taste some of the products out there and they're okay. But [the kimchi] doesn't have that interesting complexity that it should have, or maybe it's a bit unbalanced, it's really sour." She worries that, for some customers, these white-washed products may be their first encounter with Korea's greatest culinary export. "And that's a little frustrating."
But her cultural background in and of itself does not bestow kimchi-expert status: "I didn't just wake up and make good kimchi." She's spent hours researching and studying, experimenting and learning, before venturing into the market. Moon Mart's XO sauce – a Cantonese condiment – is deep, rich and savoury; the teriyaki sauce, made to the same recipe used at Paper Bird, is sweet and smoky with burnt honey. An's knowledge of all things hot, spicy and funky is earned through work rather than birthplace. "It's not like you have to be Asian to make Asian stuff. What matters is before you decide to make things for people you need to put time, effort and ambition in."
But being Korean, she concedes, does give her one edge over competitors. "I can ring my grandma for tips!"