This sauce could turn more Americans on to Korean food

A taste test: Asian-style hot sauces. (Deb Lindsey, The Washington Post)

Steven Kim’s modest hot sauce empire started innocently enough, at a garden party in the summer of 2010. Kim was cooking Korean food for a few friends at his house in suburban Richmond, Va. There were seafood pancakes, Korean-style ribs, a little kimchi and, off to the side, a pair of squeeze bottles of a dipping sauce that Kim had adapted from his mom’s recipe. He took a Sharpie and wrote “KimKim” on them.

The party was written up in a local magazine, complete with a photo of the sauce in the bottles. Kim’s buddies wanted the sauce, so he made a few batches. They wanted more, so he made more. On it went until 2012, when he found a bottler who said that for $5,000, Kim could get half a production run, which is 150 cases, which at 12 bottles a case is 1,800 bottles, which is a lot of sauce.

Kim wasn’t worried. “It was $5,000, and the worst-case scenario was that I’d have a lot of sauce to give away,” he said.

He was right to be confident. In early April 2012, a week after the bottling run, Kim submitted his sauce to the Specialty Food Association, which for two years had relocated its annual summer Fancy Food Show to Washington from New York. Three months later, Kim and his bottling partner, Ashman Manufacturing in Virginia Beach, Va., won the association’s gold medal for innovation in the cooking sauce category.

The first run sold out, and since then, Kim, 46, has been spreading the word about his sauce and in the process has helped to bring Korean cooking into the spotlight. It has become a staple at the hipster cafes across Richmond’s trendy Fan District and is available at some Harris Teeters and Whole Foods Markets in the Washington area.

Koreans and those who know Korean food will recognize KimKim as a version of ssamjang, the all-purpose dipping sauce that is a constant presence at meals. It’s a taste that is hard to pin down. It’s not blisteringly hot, like Sriracha. But it’s also not sweet (or tomato-based), like ketchup, or as salty as hoisin sauce. It sort of hovers in a force field among all of them. KimKim has umami, that savory taste that is hard to describe but makes our mouths water. The key ingredient is fermented pepper paste, made from sun-dried Korean chilies; other ingredients include fermented soy paste, vinegar, sesame seeds and sugar.

In a sense, KimKim sauce completes a circle begun nearly 40 years ago, when Kim moved with his parents and two older brothers to New York from Incheon, South Korea. He was 8 and spoke no English. He learned the language of his new country at school and from Saturday morning cartoon shows, but when it came to American food, he was on his own. His family ate only Korean food. In the seventh grade, he ordered the Betty Crocker cookbook and set about learning how to make pizza and meatloaf.

It was only after he graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1989, married his wife, Sarah, and had kids of his own that he began returning to the food of his childhood, the cuisine that he realized he never stopped craving.

“Making Korean food isn’t easy,” he said. “You have to marinate. You have to ferment.” He started with the basics: noodles and stews, along with barbecued meats. Because the dipping sauce had been a constant presence in the Kim household when he was a child, he soon brought that into his own kitchen.

Kim worked out the recipe for production with his mother, who now lives in northern New Jersey. They would talk by telephone or over FaceTime, both in their kitchens, and she would give him advice on how to tweak his batches, particularly as he made the sauce a little thinner in consistency so it would work with a squeeze bottle.

Among American palates, Korean food is still a distant choice compared with other Asian dishes. Kim attributes that to several factors. First, the food itself is often unfamiliar, and its reliance on the fermented, the pickled and the pungent can take some getting used to. But he said there’s a cultural reason, as well.

“We’re stubborn,” he said. Koreans haven’t adapted their menus to make them more Western. There’s no Korean equivalent of chicken chow mein or avocado roll, a starting point on the road to widespread acceptance. “We have not accommodated the American palate.”

Yet Korean cuisine is starting to make its way onto the scene. Kimchi now shows up in fancy restaurants as a side dish to American entrees, and Scandinavian chefs — who, like Koreans, are big into pickling and fermented foods — are helping to make sharp-smelling chow all the rage.

Kim uses his sauce as both a condiment and an ingredient. It works with wings, and with the spicy, savory stews and soups of Korea, as well as drizzled across such American staples as macaroni and cheese or scrambled eggs.

Ten years before KimKim, Kim tried his hand at owning a restaurant. It was a pan-Asian place near the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University, and he had worked up the business plan while getting his MBA at the University of Richmond. It was called Kimbo’s, and it closed within a year. Kim went back to his day job, which is providing data analytics for consumer-goods companies, making sense of the mountain of UPC information that comes across the scanner. He thinks about the restaurant’s failure and his current success, and some of that lesson comes back to passion and purpose. “The restaurant was about what other people wanted. This is about what I wanted,” he said.

Kim now sells about 2,000 bottles a month, and he likes the part-time aspect of it, with no intention of quitting his day job and becoming a full-time sauce king. That said, he and Ashman are developing a marinade and barbecue sauce as well, with the hopes of landing a national distribution deal at some point. It’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t happen, Kim said. “Everything after those first 1,500 cases has been icing.”

TASTE TEST: ASIAN-STYLE HOT SAUCES

The Sriracha shortage scare of 2013 turned out not to be the Srirachapocalypse that fans of the Huy Fong (a.k.a. “rooster”) chili sauce had feared. Despite the averted crisis, we decided to hedge our bets and sample a few other varieties of Asian hot sauces from local stores, including Steven Kim’s KimKim sauce — which, let’s put it out there, is not pretending to be a Sriracha usurper.

Fortified with water and saltines, Washington Post Food section staff members rated sauces for flavor and level of heat, using a rating scale of 1 to 5 (5 being the best).

Here’s how they ranked, in order of preference.

— Huy Fong Sriracha Chili Sauce (17 ounces, $4.69). Average score: 3.8. Comments: “tangy, hints of garlic”; “pleasant!”; “very strong aroma, off-putting”; “fruity”; “bland, comparatively.”

— Sriraja Panich Chilli Sauce (8.8 ounces, $1.79). 3.4. “Mild at first, pleasant aftertaste”; “classic tasting”; “spicy but not painful”; “a tad musty, but sourness is good, too”; “little sweet, fruity.”

— KimKim Korean Hot Sauce (16 ounces, $6.99). 3.2. “Heavy sesame-oil taste”; “more spicy complexity than heat”; “touch of sweet smoke, tastes handmade”; “a little tangy, sort of Asian-soy flavor.”

— Kikkoman Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce (10.6 ounces, $2.99). 2.8. “Too hot for me — I taste nothing”; “fermented flavors, a little funk. Complex”; “not much aroma!”; “icky — barbecue-ish.”

— Kim Tu Thap Sriracha Chili Sauce (28 ounces, $2.99) 2.2. “Pretty darn hot”; “very ugly color, neon orange, unnatural”; “like it’s gone off”; “strong, not entirely positive smell.”

— Thai Taste Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce (15.23 ounces, $3.49): 1.4. “Cardboardy, thin, bad syrupy consistency”; “meh”; “kinda fishy”; “a little vegetal.”