Mina Park, the effervescent founder of Sook, explains the art of fermentation
The effervescent founder of Sook explains why fermented foods aren’t
just a passing fad
Time and patience—these are two things that are in short supply in the modern day. We live in a high-speed, 24/7-access Instaworld where a host of apps can get us whatever we want, whenever we want, to fit around our everlengthening workday. The hunt for 30-minute recipes has now turned into quests for 15-minute (and even five-minute) recipes. Our monkey minds tell us that we have zero extra time to squeeze out of our days. That’s why, to me, making fermented foods in my kitchen feels like a kind of meditative practice.
For many fermented foods, the number of ingredients required is often very few and the active preparation time is quite short. Once you have the food prepped and in a jar, it’s simply a waiting game—you just have to put aside your impatience and your desire for instant gratification. The longer you can clear your mind and yield to patience, the greater the rewards in terms of the complexity of flavour. Kimchi is a staple fermented food in my kitchen, being that I’m Korean. Once a batch of kimchi is made, it’s often fermented enough to enjoy after a week—and that’s but a blip on the fermentation timeline.
Essential tools for fermenting foods are a couple of sturdy glass jars The longer you can clear your mind and yield to patience, the greater the rewards. Making fermented foods in my kitchen feels
like a kind of meditative practice.
Last year, I started experimenting with fermented hot sauces, starting with a recipe from Los Angeles restaurant Sqirl’s excellent cookbook Everything I Want to Eat. I had amassed a mountain of fresh habanero chillies and wanted to make something from them—and then I read through the recipe, which stated that the sauce had to sit for four weeks in a dark place after it was made. My monkey mind immediately said, “That is a whole month, Mina Park!” I took a deep breath and went ahead. And then I waited.
The resulting hot sauce was a revelation, with a flavour profile that was so deep and fiery, reminiscent of many Asian sauces. Since then, I have been playing with recipes with a variety of chillies, from fresh cayenne and Thai bird’s eye to dried guajillo and pasilla. I sometimes add aromatics such as garlic or shallots, have added sugars, and have played with using different vinegars to finish off the sauce such as rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar. This is where another virtue of fermentation becomes clear—you can play around as much as you like and time will usually be very forgiving.
In June, green plums (also known as maesil) were in season in Korea. They’re sour and firm, the colour of jade and covered in a gorgeous, fuzzy skin like a peach. I lugged home a small sack of maesil, ready to experiment. I had never played around with them before, but I wanted to try my hand at making umeboshi (Japanese salted green plums) and maesil syrup, which I often use as a sweetener in place of sugar.
For the umeboshi, I followed a recipe by American pickling guru Nancy Singleton Hachisu. I nestled the plums in salt and then—I’ll be honest—I completely forgot about them. More than three months later, I finally remembered to check on them and then realised I had missed a crucial step in Hachisu’s recipe, where I was meant to dry the plums after three weeks of salting. To my surprise and delight, the umeboshi were still divine, with a luscious, silky texture and an intense, profound flavour. I should learn to forget about my fermented foods more often, because thankfully, when it comes to fermentation, time is always on your side.
Two weeks of patience will yield a punchy, flavoursome hot sauce