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Taste Test: Store-bought kimchi

Wednesday, January 20, 2010; E04

Not yet ready to make your own kimchi? The Food section tasted five prepared varieties available locally, listed in order of appreciation:

Tobagi (fresh). Our top pick. Bright red in color, fiery and pungent with garlic, it has a heavy hit of fishiness on the finish. The cabbage is cut into large strips that stay crunchy. Scallions add contrast and a nice little bite. Now this is kimchi. 16 ounces, $4.49; available at H Mart, various locations.

Tobagi (jarred). A respectable store-bought variety. Large pieces of cabbage and radish are complemented with a little apple and pear for sweetness. An attractive red color; the heat is tempered and evenly dispersed but note: The ingredients include MSG. The wide-mouth jar is also a plus. 16 ounces, $3.49; available at H Mart, various locations.

Sunja's. A watered-down version for kimchi novices. The pros: The vegetables have an appealing crunch and would make a great addition to a hot dog or tacos. The cons: Both the mild white and medium spicy cabbage we tried are vegetarian friendly, but without any salted fish they lacked that addictive oomph. 16 ounces, $3.50; available at Whole Foods Markets, Takoma Park Silver Spring Food Co-op (301-891-2667).

Krishon. Maryland artisan Eric Johnson isn't afraid of using lots of spice in his new vegetarian kimchi. The vegetables -- cabbage and radish -- are cut too small for our taste. But heat lovers will savor the wonderfully long-lasting kick of cayenne on the finish. A version with homemade fish sauce is in development. 16 ounces, $10; available at the Bethesda Central Farmers Market (info@bethesdacentralfarmmarket.com) on Sundays.

Wills Valley. Organic; tastes more like garlicky sauerkraut or cabbage kombucha than kimchi. Made with finely chopped cabbage and carrots, it's puckeringly sour without the spicy kick or fish-base note of classic recipes. 12 ounces, $10.99; available at Takoma Park Silver Spring Food Co-op.

-- Jane Black

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