Wednesday, June 16, 2010

One Bite: Black Garlic at New Chicago Kimchee

Posted By on 06.16.10 at 09:00 AM

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For nigh on a year and a half, fermented black garlic has been the darling of the day. Something about its stygian black-metal hue, its sweet, sticky, licoricelike muskiness, and its inconsistently accounted-for origins have caught the fancy of plenty of food writers, who sing of its high antioxidant levels, its surprisingly incongruous flavor, and the mitigated afterbreath it leaves behind (yet not word one on its effectiveness against the undead). Matthias Merges of Trotter's was an early proponent, and with so many respected fine-dining chefs incorporating it into dishes, it has taken on an added air of exclusivity.

Black Garlic, Inc., in Hayward, California, is often credited as the sole U.S. manufacturer, and the company would have you think its production is a highly advanced, closely guarded secret:

Most of the magic happens behind the closed doors of our patented machine. An experienced technician monitors heat and humidity for three weeks, regularly sampling the garlic for quality and consistency.

So I was more than surprised to stroll into New Chicago Kimchee recently and find the refrigerator stocked with big glass jars of individually peeled black garlic cloves.

If there is finer kimchee in Chicago than the superbly fresh stuff made in this bitty Lawrence Avenue storefront I haven't found it yet. Mr. and Mrs. Simon Ham, who may just be the sweetest couple in Albany Park, trade mostly in wholesale, but they'll happily sell you individual jars of radish or cabbage kimchee, fermented bean paste (doenjang), different varieties of panchan, or if you're really lucky mandu or bindaetteok.

The black garlic, which they've stocked for a few months, doesn't come from California. It comes from Mrs. Ham's mother. There's no exclusive patented process employed here, no highly paid technician or slave-labor force of Oompa-Loompas involved. What she does is stick a bunch of garlic in a rice cooker, turn it on, and leave it to ferment for three weeks. Then she peels the individual cloves and spreads them out to air dry for a week. Simple as that.

The Hams laughed when I asked them for recipes. They don't cook with it. They eat it like candy. I didn't want one of the $30 jars they were selling, but for a tenner they gave me eight ounces, which should last a good long time, so long as I don't eat it like popcorn.

I only needed eight cloves to make this aioli, which yielded about a cup of what looks like chocolate pudding (I heard less charitable descriptions from the peanut gallery) but has a deep, rich flavor like smoke, balsamic vinegar, molasses, and coffee, if you can dig.

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There's a Chicago company that's trying to find retail distribution for black garlic imported from Korea, but until then the Hams are the only game in town. Theirs is indistinguishable from the stuff touted by distributors at the National Restaurant Show. And of course, they are local.

They tell me business has been slow lately, so get on over to . . .

New Chicago Kimchee, 3648 W Lawrence Ave, 773-583-4442

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