Ballard kimchee factory foments a return to fermentation

Eating on the Edge: Inside Ballard's Firefly Kitchens, Julie O'Brien and Richard Climenhage are making fermented food mainstream.

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Firefly Kitchens' very official jar sealer

Eating on the Edge: Inside Ballard's Firefly Kitchens, Julie O'Brien and Richard Climenhage are making fermented food mainstream.

The first and only kimchee factory in Ballard, to my knowledge, is located in the relatively desolate, semi-industrial gulch north of Leary Way and east of the Ballard Bridge.

The owner-operated Firefly Kitchens is located a few blocks from an electrical substation and next door to an auto body shop. In previous lives, the Firefly building was used as a fabricating shop for fishing vessels and a plant for making three-ring binders.

Really, to call Firefly a kimchee factory is a little misleading. The company has no Korean bent, or any Asian angle to its business model. Its owners, Julie O’Brien and Richard Climenhage, turn out not only kimchee but several varieties of fermented vegetables, including sauerkraut (they have no German bent either), beets, and carrots. Kimchee just happens to be the best seller of the bunch, by two to one. Theirs is a gentle, reductive version of traditional, Korean kimchee.

O’Brien and Climenhage, as you might have guessed, are not Korean, nor are they particularly passionate about Korean food. They are passionate about fermented food, a component of eating that largely went away the last century with the advent of refrigeration and canning. Most of what passes for fermented food these days, Climenhage said, is sour food, ruined by “adding sugar, heat, and vinegar.”

In other words, he’s not talking about those Vlasic dill pickles.

Most cultures still eat some form of fermented food like cheese, yogurt, beer, or miso. Some cultures more than others. (Fermentation is a biochemical process through which sugars are converted into alcohol or lactic acid, which preserves the food and keeps it edible.) Korean cooking stands out in that respect, and not just because of kimchee. 

Native Hawaiians prepare poi or fermented, mashed taro root; Southeast Asians cook with fermented fish and shrimp; Icelanders eat fermented shark; Taiwanese, fermented bean curd; the native Inuit of Greenland fermented sea birds inside a seal-skin bag, eating the putrefied birds whole six months later — bones and all. As a rule, fermented food can be sour or intensely flavored, its texture slimy. A liking for it is an acquired taste, one some will never find.

The yuck factor aside, fermented foods have beneficial properties other foods do not, the principle behind one of the food industry’s buzz words — probiotic. The term refers to the variety of beneficial, living microorganisms created during fermentation, said to aid digestion and promote good health. Grocery store shelves are full of probiotic supplements and beverages like kefir (milk fermented with grain) and kombucha (fermented tea).

For now, Firefly’s audience, O’Brien said, is a niche; people with digestion and “health issues, health nuts and foodies.” (Firefly’s cortido sauerkraut, was one of 11 winners of the 2012 Food Awards, in the pickles category, a national honor that rewards creative and sustainable, small-scale food production.) The casual consumer of fermented food has yet to be created, although O’Brien and Climenhage are trying to do just that with their less intimidating, gateway version of fermented food. Love for fermented vegetables, they said, is already in most of our DNA.

“People will say, their grandmother was Russian or Hungarian or Korean, and it reminds them of cabbage their grandmother made,” O’Brien said.

Before moving into their current space about a year ago, O’Brien and Climenhage worked in a kitchen borrowed from a caterer at night when the place was empty. The two founders and owners are the company’s primary source of labor, shredding cabbage, peeling ginger, sealing jars at all hours as needed. They have a few part-time employees and occasionally borrow help from friends and relatives.

In McGyver fashion, Climenhage built the contraption he and O’Brien use to seal jars. He bought a used, $5 turntable to spin the jars and secured a heat gun to a larger plastic jar with duct tape so he didn’t have to hold the gun. (The jar rotates on the turntable; the gun heats the plastic wrap; the wrap shrinks to fit in about five seconds.)

The operation is very low tech — as is Firefly’s product. There is a separate kitchen where the vegetables are shredded, a large, counter-height table with several stools around it where ingredients are prepped, and a brining room kept at a constant 60 degrees where the vegetables ferment in steel vats for up to six weeks.

What sets apart the kitchen is what it doesn’t have: no stove, no oven, no cooking equipment of any kind, because nothing they make is cooked.

Firefly sells most of its line of six products to PCC Natural Markets, Whole Foods, and Madison Market. Output these days is at 1,000 pounds per week and rising.

The duo buys only organic produce, most of it from local farms, although in winter they have to use produce from California. Last summer, Firefly averaged about $2,000 in sales a month; by January 2012 the company recorded $12,000 in sales.

The two partners market their sauerkraut in three varieties: “classic,” which is just green cabbage and salt; “ruby red,” with beets, red cabbage, carrots, and onions; and “cortido” with jalapenos, oregano, red chilies, and onions.

Firefly also sells a carrot-only product, mixed only with salt and ginger, and a type of cabbage salsa, which substitutes cabbage for tomato in an otherwise typical salsa recipe. Firefly’s best seller also happens to be its most boldly flavored. Firefly Kimchi (the company spells it with an “i”) is made with garlic, ginger, onions, red peppers, and the same shredded green cabbage used in the sauerkraut.

It is a fairly basic version of one of the world’s most emblematic, passion-stirring, almost spiritual foods. Strictly speaking kimchee is a Korean condiment, but also perhaps the nation’s most important food. It is labor and time intensive, an act of survival through long winters, and a dish that cannot help but make a statement because its smell is so pungent and unmistakable. Anyone I know either loves it or is terrified of it. There is little or no equivocation.

Traditional kimchee (which you can buy at Korean grocery stores in the north and south end, at Uwajimaya, or at the pan-Asian HT Mart on Aurora and 100th Street) comes in many varieties made of Chinese cabbage, various radishes, cucumbers, and bitter greens. Loads of garlic, scallions, shallots, red peppers, shrimp, oysters, or anchovies go into Korean kimchee. The cabbage is fermented whole or sliced, but never shredded.

Those who find the flavor and aroma overwhelming will find the Firefly kimchee easier to stomach. It does not contain the seafood that gives Korean kimchee its funk and is lighter on the pepper and garlic. Those who like their kimchee strong, however, might not even recognize the Firefly brand as kimchee.

“I have two Korean girlfriends who have tried it,” O’Brien said, “and one of them said, ‘Oh this is not like my mom’s kimchee, I don’t like it.’ And the other said, ‘This is not like my mom’s kimchee, but I really like it.’”

For better and worse, Firefly’s kimchee is what it is.

Both owners came to the food through a curiosity for its health benefits. Both held white-collar, office jobs (he in high-tech, she in advertising). About five years ago, O’Brien, 45, became a nutritional therapist and started experimenting with home fermentation. She met Climenhage through a farmer from whom both regularly purchased meat bones and vegetables. Climenhage, 48, had become interested in diet and nutrition after curing his chronic heart palpitations by changing his diet to include more fermented foods and saturated fat

He soon realized the concept was hardly new.

About 80 years ago, Weston Price, a prominent dentist of his time left his home and practice in Cleveland and set off to visit the faraway corners of the world, visiting people who lived free of the trappings of modern life.

Weston, who has become something of a cult figure among nutritionists, met people in rural Africa and Europe, in the Pacific islands, and the Arctic Circle among other places, studying their dietary habits along with their dental and general health. He wrote a book out of his findings, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, which is still in print more than 70 years later.

His views are seen by some as prescient, and by others as quackery. He has many critics, doctors and dentists among them, and legions of believers as well, including a non-profit foundation in Washington D.C. named after him. He concluded, in a nutshell, that the modern diet of processed and canned food, of refined grains and sugars, was slowly killing us, and that the primitive diets of traditional cultures (which contained plenty of meat and animal fat) were vastly superior, healthier, and much more nutritious. In particular, he noted people from traditional cultures ate a lot of fermented food because they lacked other methods of preserving it.

Agree or disagree, but you have to admit most of the food trends of late — organic farming, heirloom produce, raw food, pasture-raised meat — line up with Weston’s research. If he were still alive — he died in 1948 — he could probably be a spokesman for Whole Foods, or probably the Atkins diet. He and the famous food journalist/guru Michael Pollan might even start a bromance like George Clooney and Brad Pitt.

If I could interview Price today he would likely dismiss vegans and vegetarians, criticize the advent and promotion of the kids menu, and call us fussy for eating only white meat and fillets, turning up noses at the oilier cuts, bones, organ meat, and fat.

The people Price examined decades ago ate only organic food. They ate all the parts of an animal most of us would find unsavory today. They consumed plenty of saturated fat from both plant and animal sources. He found they had few cavities, healthy gums, no chronic diseases, and almost no digestive issues.

His critics have questioned his methods and findings, suggesting he ignored broader measures of health like infant mortality, or that he focused on a handful of individuals rather than looking at the population as a whole. While his conclusions are debatable, and have a hippie vibe to them decades before there were such people, there is little doubt he must have been a fun guy to eat with.

The food intelligentsia today would love him — radicalized vegans would not — as he stands in opposition to most of the developments in modern food production of the 20th century: pasteurization, homogenization, antibiotics, herbicides, and pesticides. The 20th century made food cheaper, more efficient, uniform, and highly transportable. Chemicals, canning, and refrigeration made it last longer.

It seems we might spend the next 100 years undoing all that efficiency, convenience, and order.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at