Now That's a Lot of Kimchi
We tried ten varieties total. Find out how they all did!
National Brand Winner: Tobagi
Tobagi was a clear favorite, earning high scores for striking the right balance of sourness and spiciness. There's a trifecta of fishiness happening from the salted shrimp, anchovies and oyster sauce, but it's nicely flanked by sweetness from the apples, pears, and sugar. "A complex fermented flavor," said one taster. "It has a slight burn that lingers for a few seconds," said another taster. Tobagi was the spiciest of the five national brands we tried. Although it's made with MSG, the only other brand made with MSG, Assi, didn't score as high as Tobagi. The brand is sold in Asian grocery stores such as H Mart.
NYC Brand Winner: Bing Gre Kimchee Pride
Made in Queens, Bing Gre was the saltiest we tried with a fishy undertone. The Napa cabbage is pickled with salt and anchovy sauce, then balanced with a little sugar. One taster wrote, "Sour BOMB," and thought the kimchi didn't taste balanced enough. Another taster took note of the saltiness, but said the kimchi had an overall satisfying taste. It's distributed up and down the East Coast. New Yorkers can find it at Assi Plaza in Flushing.
National Brand: Jo San
Los Angeles-based Cosmos Food Company produces cabbage kimchi under three different labels: Cosmos, Jo San, and Frieda's. The Jo San version woke us up with a big dose of sour. One taster said, "Potent! I like it." Other tasters didn't appreciate how soft and mushy kimchi it was. We purchased it at a New Jersey Wegmans.
National Brand: Chongga
Imported from South Korea, Chongga is a vegetarian brand that doesn't use salted shrimp, anchovies, anchovy sauce, fish sauce or oyster sauce—all common ingredients in traditional kimchi. While it had the most crunch of all the brands we tried, it was the least sour. "Bland and rubbery," said one taster. If you're into less intense kimchis, this one's for you.
NYC Brand: Mama O's Premium Kimchi
Made in small batches, Mama O's Premium Kimchi is sold in select stores in New York City and the Berkshires in Massachusetts. Tasters rated this the sourest of all the NYC-produced brands we tried. But it wasn't an unappealing sour. "Wow. Nice and complex, almost nutty flavors," said one taster. It's interesting, funky, salty, and slightly fishy-tasting. It was also the only one containing cilantro.
NYC Brand: Mother-in-Law's Kimchi
Founded in the Lower East Side in Manhattan, Mother-in-Law's Kimchi had a very noticeable spicy kick with a hidden meaty taste thanks to the added beef stock. One taster loved the "funky sourness," while others found it too fishy. It's sold all over New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, as well as a few select specialty stores in San Francisco and Chicago.
National Brand: Assi Brand Cabbage Kimchi
This kimchi has the same ingredients as Tobagi from pears to MSG, but tasters found it more one-dimensional. "It didn't hit all the notes," said one taster. It wasn't very spicy or salty. It's the house brand at Assi Plaza locations, and is the same kimchi sold under the Lotte label at sister Lotte Plazas across the country.
National Brand: King's Spicy Kimchi
King's Spicy Kimchi is vegetarian with a surprise ingredient: paprika. Most tasters said it was on the bland end of the spectrum, not very spicy or salty. Another one for less intense kimchi fans. It's sold in chain retail stores such as Walmart.
NYC Brand: New York Kimchi (Kum Gang San)
Kum Gang San, a Korean restaurant with locations in Manhattan and Flushing, sells various kinds of kimchi. It's also for sale at Assi Plaza locations. It earned middle-of-the-road marks for overall flavor. Tasters noted the fishy-ness and shrimp aftertaste.
East Coast Brand: Sunja's Medium Spicy Kimchi
Vermont-based Sunja's distributes its vegetarian kimchi anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains. Kenji was the first to notice that Sunja's doesn't use Napa cabbage, but uses green cabbage instead. "We decided to use it (green cabbage) because it's crunchier than Napa," said the company's vice president Dave Hayden, which ensures that the kimchi stays firm when shipped around the country. Hayden pointed out that they actually sell a limited edition version with Napa cabbage on their website. Tasters ranked this one the crunchiest of all the brands.