by Katie Ruppel
On my kitchen counter there lives another world. Billions of lives are being held hostage within a plastic, 8-ounce container. They eat sugars and carbohydrates, and release lactic acid, forcing the lid to bend under their strength. They wait impatiently for their next destination: my gut.
I’m talking about the beneficial bacteria growing on a batch of MV Kimchi, of course. I like to imagine all the microorganisms cheering for joy as they slide their way down my esophagus and into my digestive system—their new home. While this image is fanciful, research shows that probiotics from kimchi have a myriad of health benefits for our bodies, including improving brain and skin health, stimulating the immune system, and fighting cancer.
Our intestinal flora is a complicated population, and I am no microbiologist, so I can’t tell you exactly what probiotics are doing inside our bodies. But, I have tasted many a kimchi, and I do know that this particular kimchi is my favorite. It is perfectly fermented: effervescent yet crunchy, with surprise spice pockets inside its cabbage folds. So I wanted to meet the magic MV Kimchi maker, Jei Thayer.
Outside her Vineyard Haven home, we glide through Jei’s well-tended garden of edible trees and shrubs, a patch of Chinese chives, purple shiso, and thin, hot peppers that curl like witches’ nails. She takes me into her laboratory, which has the classic kimchi smell— something between spicy burps and sweaty sneakers—and I see all of her experiments bubbling softly and silently.
“I make kimchi from memory,” she said. “Memories way before Google time.”
If you do Google kimchi, recipes pop up for lacto-fermented radishes, carrots, and cucumbers with anchovies, oysters, and more. But for her product Jei keeps things simple and traditional: Napa cabbage, garlic, ginger, hot peppers, and scallions.
Jei remembers making kimchi as a young girl with the women of her village in Korea. Every woman would have a task: shredding cabbage, salting it, or smushing together the pepper paste. The kimchi would be placed in an earthenware called an onggi pot and buried into the soil in order to keep a consistent temperature through winter’s freeze and spring’s thaw.
“There would be a pile of cabbage in every yard. All the wives would go together to each house. For example they would go to Katie’s house, and we’d make enough kimchi for Katie and her children to live for the winter. So that’s a lot of kimchi! Then the next day we would go to Jei’s house, and make kimchi for Jei and her family.”
Which would really be a lot of kimchi; Jei eats kimchi at every meal.
“Kimchi to our dinner table is like potatoes for the Irish. If you don’t have kimchi, you are in a die-hard situation. Rice and kimchi for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
At our particular lunch, Jei served her kimchi with steamed rice and packed it into small nori strips for salty, crackling, chewy bites. She eats this for most meals, but will also make recipes like kimchi pancakes with shredded beef, and kimchi soup—her son’s favorite.
She began selling small batches of MV Kimchi about three years ago. Her mission was simple: “I wanted people to know what real, good, clean kimchi tastes like. And to eat a little bit every day.”
Has Jei ever eaten too much kimchi?
“No, no. Except kimchi soup… it’s just so good.”