Asian cuisine in the Bay Area has a new crop of intensely passionate leaders with enough talent and culinary chops to lure Martha Stewart to the table. Anthony Myint and Danny Bowien stand behind big, bold Mission Chinese. Sylvan Mishima Brackett of PekoPeko Catering’s insanely articulate and authentic Japanese food will certainly land him on the map of grander things -- one hopes the rumors are true that he’s seeking his own location. And scheduled to open in January, FuseBox, the West Oakland eatery of Korean-born Sunhui Chang, will add fuel to the Korean food fire with housemade gochuchang, exquisitely crafted pickles, bacon mochi, and well-honed culinary passion.
What’s pucker-worthy about Chang’s cuisine is its pickle-centric nature, many varieties of which he’s been sharing with the pickling community. He’s currently crafting several different varieties of kimchee, using the standard cabbage and daikon, and also rapini and turnip greens. He prides himself on making use of the “offal of vegetables” and thereby using ever part -- including radish greens, and reusing a vinegar pickle brine and the pickled garlic that flavors it. He dunks in the drink your standard vegetables such as cucumbers (see the recipe for Oiji below) and breakfast radish, but also more experimental concepts such as blueberries, summer squash, and fennel. FuseBox is equipped with some vegetable boxes that will grow some of the produce, and Chang is currently working with the People’s Grocery to have them grow additional vegetables for him. Everything pickled and fermented from Chang’s kitchen will be as closely sourced as possible.
Of course, pickles aren’t the only things on the menu. Bacon-wrapped mochi are satisfyingly stretchy and smoky, and Chang will be grilling ko chu jang pork and chicken yakitori, and caking housemade tofu.
Chang takes regular trips to LA to procure quality, small-batch artisan soy sauce -- he says it’s the closest place to find it outside Korea. But another of the most impressive aspects of Chang’s cooking is that he makes his own gochuchang, the hot, salty and sweet fermented red pepper paste that is the basis of Korean cooking (akin to what miso is to Japanese cuisine). Few are the Korean chefs who make their own. Most Korean markets offer several different varieties, and if you’ve ever eaten Korean food, you’ve tasted it. It’s used in stir fries like bi bim bab, as a marinade for bulgogi, to flavor stews, as a condiment for crispy lettuce wraps, as the base for soups, and in many varieties of Korean pickles. I’d never tasted good gochuchang until I’d encountered Chang’s proprietary blend of glutinous rice, soybeans, red chili powder, and sugar. The sauce ferments for about 60-90 days.
“It took a while to learn the gochuchang. I went through so many batches where mold had developed. What I make is not as sweet as the store-bought stuff; more earthy.” Chang reports that in anticipation of the FuseBox opening, he’s experimenting with different varieties of gochuchang, including one for fish stews, and another to be eaten fresh.
Chang has kimchee and other Korean flavors flowing in his blood. As a child born in Korea, family friends gathered to play cards at his house and eat his mother’s well-loved kimchee chi gae. “There’s a Korean expression, ‘She just had her hands in the food,’ and that’s why it was so good. We didn’t have recipes or grow up with cooking books. Cooking was just innate to her.”
Eventually, after Chang’s family moved to Guam, his mother opened her own Korean restaurant when he was 13 years old, and he immediately began helping out by cleaning dishes, sweeping, and mopping. Later he was allowed to slice meat and occasionally pop into the kitchen. “I’m so grateful for everything she taught me, and I wish I’d followed her more. However, at the time, I didn’t think she was really, really cooking. It wasn’t as exciting as watching chefs on the cooking shows!” Growing up with Guam’s tiny and remote culinary culture, Chang laughs as he recalls that the PBS show Great Chefs, Great Cities was a huge influence on his career choice.
Just a few days after his 17th birthday, Chang moved to Berkeley by himself to begin qualifying for in-state tuition at UC Berkeley, where he later studied sociology. To fund his schooling, he worked in a bagel shop, then as a butcher and a fishmonger at a market. He soon became a cook at the now-defunct Hwang Won, a Korean restaurant in Oakland, before launching his own catering business for 14 years.
After two years of effort, FuseBox has secured over $17,000 via Kickstarter (where I invested $25); enough to finish construction and, hopefully, have the inside complete for an opening this January. Expansion plans are already underway to offer outdoor seating and possibly open a market next door selling fresh fish, local artisan goods, and of course Chang’s pickles by the jar.
Oiji—Korean Cucumber Pickle
Recipe by Sunhui Chang of FuseBox Oakland
5 small cucumbers—Either Pickling (Kirby), Persian, or Japanese
2 tablespoons kosher salt
3 cloves garlic
The whites of two green onions, cut into 1’ pieces
4-5 Korean chili pepper threads (available at Korean markets)
3/4 cup unseasoned rice vinegar
1/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup water
Wash cucumbers, leaving them wet. Sprinkle salt on cucumbers and let them sit in a flat dish for three hours, turning them occasionally.
Wash the salt from the cucumbers and trim the ends so that they’ll fit standing upright in a pint-sized jar. Add them to the jar, along with the garlic, green onion, and pepper threads.
Meanwhile, make the brine. In a small saucepan, combine the vinegar, sugar and water. Bring to boil. Lower heat and simmer for 1-2 minutes.
Pour warm brine over cucumbers. Cover, cool, and refrigerate. Enjoy the pickles after two days, but they will last up to two weeks.
Makes one pint.
Photo of Bacon Mochi by SunIm Chang. Photo of Kimchee and Gochuchang by Sarah K. Khan.