He never intended to start a business; Kheedim Oh, CAS/BS ’98, was just hankering for kimchi that tasted fresh and funky like his mom’s.
The Korean fermented cabbage delicacy that Oh found in stores was soggy, overwhelmed by preservatives, or too sweet. “It wasn’t fermented very well,” says the Silver Spring, Maryland, native. “That’s why I asked my mom to teach me how to make it.”
In 2007, while working as a DJ in New York, he shared a batch with his butcher and received rave reviews. He incorporated Mama O’s Premium Kimchi and launched a makeshift operation: filling orders from his apartment kitchen, delivering them by subway and skateboard, and building his brand through cold calls and demos at Essex Market on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. By 2011, Mama O’s had outgrown Oh’s humble abode—both from his perspective and in the eyes of New York’s cottage food law, which prevents the sale of many homemade products.
“I’m sure all my neighbors loved [me moving the business],” he says, laughing, “because when I would make a batch of kimchi, I would light up the whole building. And it wasn’t huge building.”
He moved to a commercial kitchen in New Jersey, then operated out of a deli in Queens. When Oh landed a contract to produce kimchi for all the Whole Foods salad bars in the Northeast, he needed a facility slightly bigger than the deli’s 13-by-10 stockroom. In 2013, Oh transitioned to a space that’s been dubbed the “creative epicenter of Brooklyn’s food scene”—the former Pfizer factory in Williamsburg. The 150-year-old plant is home to dozens of artisan food makers and it’s from there that Mama O’s has blossomed into one of the nation’s top kimchi brands, churning out six varieties of the delicacy along with kimchili sauce and kimchi paste.
Even though Oh has moved on from regular deejay gigs, trading beats for cabbage, he sees running a kimchi business as a form of creative expression. He handles all of Mama O’s marketing efforts as well as its kitchen innovations. Deviating from traditional kimchi recipes, Oh swaps cilantro for minari—a Korean parsley that can be hard to find—and lime juice to boost freshness and acidity.
“If you don’t have that acidity, then it’s just coleslaw,” he says.
Mama O’s has benefited from a bump in business during the pandemic, as consumers have used lockdown to take a good, hard look at their health. Kimchi checks a couple of boxes: as a fermented food, it has strong probiotic properties, and cabbage is among a crop of cruciferous vegetables hailed for their potential to reduce inflammation and even cancer risk.
“People are starting to recognize the connection between the gut and the mind, and the fact that over 70 percent of your immune system is located in your in your gut,” Oh says. “It’s an honor to share my mom’s recipe and have people fall in love with a delicious food that helps them stay healthy.”
As Oh spends his days tweaking, mixing, and selling a family recipe, he takes pride in knowing that he has at last found his passion.
“I started this company in my thirties, and I’m very fulfilled and doing what I want to do,” Oh says. “It’s never too late for a success. I would just say to anyone that’s looking for something different: Try to do something that you really enjoy, because you’re going to be doing a lot of it.”
Making a superfood with super-personal roots is good for both gut and soul.
Hit a rough (cabbage) patch while making kimchi? Lettuce ask Oh how to make daikon kimchi.
Peel, rinse, and halve daikon, or substitute red radishes.
Mix them with gochugaru chili flakes, minced garlic, ginger juice, salt, and sugar (fermentation fuel). Don’t over-season; it will transform.
Allow the mixed paste to sit overnight at room temperature—usually covered to allow gases to exchange, but it’s not mandatory. Kimchi is robust.
Pack the kimchi into a jar, squishing everything below the brine line. Screw the top on tight and place the jar in the refrigerator. After sitting for five days, it will stay fresh for about a month and a half.
Avoid eating directly from the jar, as pathogens can spoil kimchi.