Even kimchi's fiercest fans can't deny it: The stuff stinks. Indeed, like Asian fish sauce or a properly ripe Livarot cheese, an aggressive smell is part of the charm of the ubiquitous Korean pickle. For centuries, Koreans put their kimchi underground, muffling the gassy reek of the mostly pickled cabbage or daikon leaf within trashcan-size clay jars sunk into the dirt. But modernization ushered the funk indoors, into refrigerators, where the pickle's aura invaded just about anything in a wide proximity. That's where its charm ended.
Enter the kimchi-neng-jang-go, or kimchi fridge, the hottest appliance to sweep South Korea since the electric rice cooker. It's a refrigerator annex, like the ubiquitous wine fridge in American kitchens, designed specifically to quarantine kimchi and prevent its heady fragrance from seeping into the kitchen at large one manufacturer, Dimchae, calls its appliances "fresh fridges." Since 2001, South Koreans have been buying more kimchi coolers than regular refrigerators. But it isn't just the upwardly mobile of Seoul who've embraced the fresh fridge. More and more, kimchi-neng-jang-gos are banishing the funk from North Oakland.
On a recent afternoon, shoppers at Kitchen Plus, the housewares annex at Koreana Plaza a bustling supermarket in the heart of Oakland's Koreatown shopping corridor along Telegraph Avenue browsed electric fish grills and gingko-leaf chopstick rests. Pink-smocked store clerk Okhui Lee was in full sales mode. "There's a filter here," she said, raising one of two doors on the Dimchae model 225L, one of five on display. It's clad in stainless steel with a sleek, semi-matte finish, and either caramel- or burgundy-colored front panels. The fridge is about the size of two dishwashers side by side. "The smell can't escape, and you can make it cold or not so cold, whatever you want."
All these models had separate compartments for different types of kimchi, each with their own temperature control. "Some people like kimchi really fresh," says store manager Patricia Lee (no relation to Okhui), meaning they don't want it to ferment much further in cold storage. "Other people like it stronger, so they'll keep the temperature a little bit warmer," which essentially allows the kimchi to keep fermenting. A control panel has buttons labeled "slow ferment" and "more ferment," next to a drawing of one of those clay kimchi jars, the ones Koreans used to bury in the ground.
"Even second-generation Koreans love the kimchi fridge," Patricia says. "It keeps the kimchi smell from getting into their milk." Since June, Kitchen Plus has sold five kimchi-neng-jang-gos. Not bad, considering the 225L runs just under $2,000, the cost of a fifty-inch plasma TV. For that kind of money, even second-generation kimchi fans might put up with cereal doused in funky-tasting 2 percent.