Condiments like kimchi at Eun Hee An's Moon Mart store have well-crafted and cherished qualities — so you'd suspect they're homemade. An's home life renders a different story, though.
"I don't make kimchi at home because our kitchen is too tiny and plus we have pets that I do not trust," says the Sydney chef with a laugh. "Volume is another reason I cannot make kimchi at home, [otherwise] our house will be covered with cabbages."
Even though the ex-Paperbird chef doesn't make her Moon Mart goods in her kitchen, she still makes them by hand in some spare space in a commercial kitchen and they still connect her to home. Her kimchi, XO sauce and other condiments draw on ingredients from the Australian landscape but are inspired by her Korean family and upbringing in Ulsan and Gyeongju, in the country's south.
"I grew up with my paternal grandma until I left Korea to come to Sydney," says An. "She was the person who taught me how to make kimchi."
In fact, they'd produce kimchi every winter together. So when the chef opened her restaurant Moon Park with her partner Ben Sears in Sydney in 2013, it was natural to ask her now 98-year-old grandmother for the kimchi recipe to include on the menu. Today, An also draws on her grandmother's kimchi-making steps for Moon Mart's kimchi range, which the chef runs part-time while occasionally working at Ezra, Sears' current restaurant in Potts Point. Although her version has a different price point to the factory-made kimchi you find in supermarkets, it's because she makes it with lots of care (and muscle aches).
From finding the right kind of wombok to prepping the cabbages and ageing them for a month, it's a time-consuming process. "To be honest, every step is very hard – but sometimes just waiting for things to be ready is the hardest. Like, I need to soak [the wombok] in salty water for few hours and then wash, drain them for another four hours," she says.
"The first time I got ambitious and thought I could smash it out, and I ordered 20 cabbages to make by myself. I nearly cried," she says and laughs. It took her a painfully long time to wash, slice, drain and ready the vegetables for fermenting — literally. Her body was intensely sore from the kimchi-making marathon.
"I've decided 12 is my limit," she says. "I still struggle a bit, but it's better to do a lot at once!"
Her Korean experiences have also shaped her Moon Mart products — in particular her vegan kimchi product, which was inspired by a "memorable" barugongyang (Buddhist temple meal) in Seoul. "It was my first time trying a vegan version and [I] was quite shocked to know that kimchi can still deliver umami without fish sauce."
Buddhist diets aren't only vegetarian – they also omit pungent roots such as garlic and onion. But these restrictions didn't hold An back from nailing vegan kimchi, especially as her Korean maternal grandmother had scored some helpful insider intel from a monk.
The chef says, "She asked one of the monks in the temple she goes to. And that's where I learned about using persimmon and aged soy!"
These ingredients aptly replace the fish sauce that's typically found in kimchi, without losing the condiment's savoury depth.
"I was quite shocked to know that kimchi can still deliver umami without fish sauce."
Was it hard creating a plant-based alternative? "I just had to reimagine and kind of deconstruct traditional XO," An says. "I wanted to focus on the saltiness from ham, stringy texture of scallops, crispy and nuttiness of prawn — and the funkiness and savouriness of everything."
Her vegan XO gets its sharp, salty hit from fermented black beans, a scallop-like texture from rehydrated and fried daikon and a prawn-like sweetness from fried garlic and eschalots. There's firepower from five different types of chilli, too.
Moon Mart's product line also includes a pickled jalapeño and yuzu jangajji. "Jangajji is a soy-based pickle that Koreans love to eat all year around with your meals. Wherever you go, it always comes as a banchan [side dish]," she says. Jjangajji is usually heavy on the soy sauce and sugar (which is great on rice, but otherwise "I always found it's a bit much for me"), so she's adapted it for a local multicultural demographic.
The chef's surrounds influence the ingredients she uses. The deep-red gocharu (sun-dried chilli) in her kimchi comes from a farm in the Hawkesbury River region, just an hour's drive from Sydney. The maesil (plum syrup), also in her kimchi, is flavoured with organic green plums grown on a NSW farm in Schofields. The burnt honey in Moon Mart's teriyaki, meanwhile, is sourced from a local hive. "I caramelise [it] myself to create a more complex flavour. It's something I learnt at Claude's," she says.
In the same way she creates Asian condiments with local ingredients, An also advocates eating them in a third-culture manner.
"I love using vegan XO in pasta, love incorporating XO with butter! Sounds weird, but my teriyaki sauce is [a] very good dipping sauce with hot chips," she says and laughs. The chef also advocates chopping up her pickled jalapeño and mixing the yuzu-flavoured peppers into mayonnaise. "You can't go wrong! It's like a spicy tartare sauce."
Her summer plans for Moon Mart include producing her "favourite pickle" (shiso and white peach) while waiting for her gochujang (Korean fermented chilli paste) to finish ageing. "It takes more than three months to develop the flavour."
She also hopes to expand her kimchi range. Will she be inspired by her previous visit to Seoul's museum dedicated to the fermented condiment?
"It was fun to see lots of different styles of kimchi," she says — particularly the surprising pumpkin and watermelon rind kimchi, even though it wasn't that delicious. "I don't think it will become a Moon Mart item any time soon, I will just file that in the interesting facts folder!"
Kimchi is a classic Korean pickle that can be made from just about any vegetable. This one uses wombok (Chinese cabbage) and is pungent and addictive.
XO sauce only appeared in Cantonese cuisine the 1980s. It’s a collection of the most prized ingredients from around China, and it was named after XO cognac – the height of sophistication in Hong Kong at the time. The dried scallops are a little expensive, but that’s kind of the point. Destination Flavour China