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Creating Condiments And Community With The Spicy Hermit

Eunice Chang sells several varieties of kimchi at the Saturday Farmers’ Market in Durham, NC (photo courtesy of The Spicy Hermit)

[ambient sounds of the Durham Farmers’ Market]

Josephine (narrating): The Durham Farmers’ Market in May is home to a lot of eye-catching booths, filled with crusty loaves of bread, plump strawberries, and pillowy heads of butter lettuces. But The Spicy Hermit stand is especially intriguing. Flanked by two large coolers and a display of free samples in white cardboard cups, it’s much science lab as it is produce stand. Taiwanna Pettiford is trying a sample.

Taiwanna: And here it goes. Crunchy — ooh — A little spicy and hot. But it has great flavor. It has a little bit of a twang.

Josephine (narrating): Kimchi is a Korean condiment, with a history dating back to around 37 BC. It is made by salting and fermenting vegetables, often using ginger, garlic, or Korean chili peppers for additional flavor. Eunice Chang is the chef behind The Spicy Hermit’s kimchis. She advises market-goers on which batch to try — butternut squash, green garlic, sweet onion, or the traditional favorite of napa cabbage.

Eunice: The napa kimchi is our spiciest, but it’s also our most popular.

Josephine (narrating): If they didn’t grow up with kimchi, visitors to Eunice’s booth are often curious as how to use this little jar of preserved vegetables. As Eunice advises, it’s great to up the ante of an already spicy creation like salsa or ramen. And when mixed with a fat, the sour and pungent taste of kimchi creates something entirely new and complex.

Eunice: Personally, I like to mix it with avocado, and it makes an amazing avocado toast.

Josephine (narrating): Avocado toast might not need a recipe, but cards at the booth include step-by-step instructions for dishes like kimchi and goat cheese ravioli, or kimchi queso. Eunice’s partner Brian Owen is often involved in taste testing these creations.

Brian: Those are typically things that on a Sunday afternoon, after the market and after we’ve had time to rest, we’ll think about what to cook on Sunday. and [Eunice will] usually think up some kind of crazy kimchi-inclusive recipe.

Josephine (narrating): And rest aftermarket is much needed. Eunice flies solo at the relaxed Wednesday market, but on the weekends The Spicy Hermit is a busy team affair, with friends like Cheryl Mitchell-Olds pitching in.

Cheryl: I am a kimchi cheerleader. I eat kimchi and I tell everybody that kimchi spices up their life and makes everything they cook better!

Josephine (narrating): Eunice has fostered a community around her passion for foods. We happen to live in the same neighborhood, and I realized once we met that she was the force behind our local park’s delicious but mysterious food truck rodeo. She slings kimchi-infused dishes at local arts and food events and inspires her friends to be more adventurous in their tastes.

Meridith Emmett: I never knew I liked kimchi until I tried Eunice’s kimchi,

Josephine (narrating): Meridith is a neighbor of Eunice’s. Eunice is deaf and she chose to write out some of her longer answers for this piece and to have Meredith read them for her.

[Sound of Meredith adjusting her script paper and saying “Oh! I just realized, it’s two-sided!”]

Josephine (narrating): Eunice started making kimchi because she couldn’t find any she liked in the area. She sourced her ingredients at the downtown farmers’ market.

Eunice (read by Meredith): One day a farmer asked me why I was taking copious amounts of napa cabbage and radish and I said I was making kimchi. His face brightened up and he said that he loved kimchi, so I said I’d bring him a jar. Well, he finished the jar in a week, and he eventually convinced me that I should sell it.

Josephine (narrating): She cites a number of books as inspiring The Spicy Hermit, such as the novel Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee, and Never Home Alone, biologist Rob Dunn’s love letter to the beneficial nature of microbes. She also had a potent memory of her own grandmother’s recipe.

Eunice (read by Meredith): She’s long gone now, but the only time I saw her make kimchi was when she visited us in the States. She’d use the vegetables available to us here and convert it to kimchi. For example, she’d make green cabbage and cucumber kimchi. I haven’t been able to replicate it, but my green cabbage kimchi is definitely inspired by her.

Josephine (narrating): Foods from around North Carolina are central to the Spicy Hermit’s portfolio of products.

Eunice (read by Meredith): As for southern staples like collards and sweet potato, these are vegetables that grow easily and abundantly here in the South, and there are many recipes that involve using them with spicy, slightly sour flavors, like cider vinegar and hot sauce for collards, so I figured using them in kimchi would be a good example of local preservation and produce good flavor profiles.

Josephine (narrating): The first step is finding some great core ingredients to use. And there’s a very special ingredient, or essence, or activator, added as a person chops and seasons the vegetables to prepare them for fermentation. It’s called hand favor, or son mat in Korean.

Eunice (read by Meredith): Every person has a unique composition of beneficial microbes on their hands, and when you make kimchi or sourdough bread, you pass on that composition. So yes, every person’s kimchi is different, and yes, some people can just make things taste better (or differently) from others.

Josephine (narrating): As the vegetables and spices sit in a jar at room temperature for a week or two, their flavor begins to change radically.

Eunice (read by Meredith): So for example, a lot of people don’t like raw radishes or turnips. But when you ferment them into kimchi, they become sweeter, with a tinge of sour, and it’s almost like a completely different vegetable.

Josephine (narrating): When Eunice was starting to jar and sell her products, she needed to come up with a name. And The Spicy Hermit fit her mission perfectly.

Eunice (read by Meredith): Korea used to be called The Hermit Kingdom, so I took the word hermit and a friend suggested the adjective spicy, which can literally mean using spices, which kimchi does use, or it could also mean sassy. Since I’m strong-minded in my opinions, particularly that of food, and I’m a bit of an introvert, The Spicy Hermit seemed to be a good way to describe myself. Although I also liked the mystery about it, in that a hermit would be practicing food alchemy in a cave to produce rather delicious results.

Josephine McRobbie

Josephine McRobbie is a freelance writer, audio producer, and cultural documentarian born in Australia and now based in Durham, North Carolina. She holds degrees in Journalism, Library Science, and Ethnomusicology from Indiana University. Over the years she has worked at a variety of arts and history-focused organizations including Traditional Arts Indiana, the Southern Historical Collection, and the IU Libraries Moving Image Archive. After 5 years of living in the south, she can finally make a decent buttermilk biscuit.

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