Oak Park resident and mom, Madeline Moon, met Rebecca Shim and Susanna Kim while their children attended Bulta Korean School in Chicago. A common background and mutual love of food and cooking fostered a friendship between the women who had all emigrated from Seoul at various points in their lives. Now the passionate home cooks are bringing a taste of Korea to Oak Park and River Forest.
The doting mothers shared concerns about the quality of the lunches being offered to their students during their weekly language and culture lessons, but rather than leave the lunches to chance they developed a parent-driven meal program that focused on cooking and serving healthy homestyle Korean meals to the students. The friendship evolved over time and Moon, Shim and Kim would often cook meals they could enjoy together. Over a home-cooked dinner one evening Moon, who arrived in the states in her late 20’s, mentioned the lack of Korean food in Oak Park.
“We couldn’t understand what she was talking about at first,” said Shim. “We live in Chicago and have Korean restaurants and grocery stores, but when Madeline said she wished there was a good Korean restaurant in her neighborhood our idea grew organically from there.”
The cooks, operating under the name Persimmon Kitchen, turned their attention to developing a signature recipe for ssamjang—a pungent and addictive Korean condiment commonly served alongside barbecued meats wrapped in leaves. Made from fermented soybeans, spicy chilis and seeds, Persimmon Kitchen’s version of ssamjang can be used in a variety of ways. Equal parts dip, sauce and marinade, the “slow food” product is vegan, capitalizes on healthy bacteria growth, and relies on apple rather than cane sugar to bring a necessary sweetness to the well-balanced sauce.
“Our version of ssamjang is very family friendly,” said Moon. “Once you start dipping your vegetables in it you will be eating more and more. It is so good children will eat more vegetables, too.”
Moon, Shim and Kim have set up shop at River Forest Kitchen, 349 Ashland Ave. River Forest Kitchen, home to multiple food startups, provides the eager home cooks with a proper place to bottle their ssamjang and experiment with new ways for their customers to experience it. Persimmon Kitchen offers their ssamjang and other related dishes through monthly sales run through their website.
“Our goal is not to sell meals,” said Moon matter-of-factly. “Our goal is to sell meals that help people taste the ssamjang.”
Ultimately the trio hopes to get packaged Persimmon Kitchen Ssamjang into grocery markets and develop other packaged products (they are working on a lovely summer radish and turnip kimchee), but for now the business is in its infancy and the sauce is currently sold in seven-ounce jars via online monthly sales with local pickup. A limited number of fully prepared meals are offered at each sale that utilize the sauce in a creative way.
The cooks have offered Tteokgalbi sliders (Bulgogi inspired burgers) with pickled cabbage slaw and Hotteok, a sweet or savory street food pancake at prior sales. At their next sale, scheduled for Aug. 6, they plan to offer “Korean friendly quinoa” topped with a choice of locally sourced tofu or minced beef dressed with a citrus-ssamjang dressing and fresh herb salad.
Moon, Shim, and Kim are very clear they are not professional chefs and prefer to be known as home cooks with a passion for bringing dishes that reflect their background to the local community.
“We are very new and still figuring things out,” said Moon. “But I feel like we could start this here because Oak Park is very encouraging. My kids went to Lincoln and OPRF and I couldn’t think about starting this without the warmth of this beautiful community behind me.”
Slots are limited for the Aug. 6 sale and the online menu is expected to be updated in the coming days. Place your orders at www.persimmonkitchen.com and plan for pick up to be at River Forest Kitchen between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. on the sale date.
Persimmon Kitchen is one to watch!