BLUE HILL — “Umami” is a Japanese category of taste that is neither sweet, nor sour, nor salty, nor bitter. It is more like a savory deliciousness, which aptly describes the bean paste made by Charity Gravitt Chung, a Blue Hill resident and one of the few masters of traditional Korean cuisine in all of Hancock County.
“Most Asian food in Maine is not known to be that good,” said Gravitt Chung, who nearly sells out of food every time she sets up Mama Chung’s Traditional Home-cooked Korean Food at the Blue Hill Farmers Market. “People were really happy to have something different.”
Her selections were very different compared to those available at the lobster shacks and snack bars that dot much of the Downeast landscape. Gravitt Chung’s offerings included vegetable-stuffed rice balls (jumeokbap), spicy shredded squid (ojinguhchae-muchim), tofu with sauce (dububuchim), spicy fermented cabbage (kimchi) and flavor-packed sweet potato starch noodles (japchae).
“One customer came back every week just for the noodles,” Gravitt Chung said.
Part of what makes Gravitt Chung’s Korean food so delectable is the fact that almost all the ingredients — the noodles, the dried mushrooms, the soy sauce, the dried squid, the green tea seaweed and the rice — are all shipped from Korea. The Chungs usually order the ingredients by mail, but they also have traveled as far south as Portland and Boston to shop at the Korean markets there.
“It’s a lot more expensive with shipping,” Gravitt Chung said. “But it’s absolutely worth it because it does taste better with Korean ingredients.”
Especially Kokuho Rose rice, a Korean brand that has an especially soft and sticky texture that, according to Gravitt Chung, makes it far superior to other rice. Luckily, Tradewinds Marketplace in Blue Hill carries Kokuho.
“There’s just a flavor to it that makes it so delicious,” she said. “We don’t even eat American rice.”
Gravitt Chung might not have noticed the difference had she not met her Korean American husband, Andrew, about 20 years ago. Before that, she grew up making fried fish, fried chicken and “anything you could fry” as a Southern girl living in southern Virginia. Neither of her parents is Korean, but when Gravitt Chung met Andrew online while the two were in college, she wanted to learn all she could about the cuisine.
“I really wanted to learn more about it when we started dating,” she said, to the surprise of Andrew, who grew up in Olney, Md. “He often says, ‘I thought I was marrying a Southern girl, I thought I was going to get fried chicken all the time.’ And instead he gets Korean food all the time.”
Andrew mostly prefers Italian food, and insists that he is Italian.
“It’s not a joke,” he said. “My two favorite things are lasagna and chicken Parmesan.”
He might have a tough time eating that at home, though. After raising her and Andrew’s four young children on tofu and seaweed, Gravitt Chung said they’re not interested in eating much else.
“My kids do not like American food,” she said. “So to get them to eat a hot dog or a hamburger, and sometimes even pizza is like pulling teeth.”
That’s probably good for the kids in the long run. Gravitt Chung’s Korean food is packed with vegetables that are largely harvested from local farms. When those vegetables ferment for staple Korean dishes such as kimchi, they become rich with probiotics and antioxidants. That’s one reason why Korean food is becoming more popular in the United States, but Gravitt Chung is cautious about imitators.
“You can try stuff online,” said the 38-year-old, who spent years in the kitchen learning recipes with Andrew’s mother, Young. “But it’s different when you get traditional recipes passed down to you, shown by someone you love.”
Traditional Korean recipes are not complete without traditional Korean techniques, Gravitt Chung explained. Those techniques include methodically picking out any kernels of rice that are not perfectly white and soaking onions in water so that they can be served with soaked seaweed.
“I don’t know why, but it’s Korean culture,” she said, about the onions. “It’s just the way it is, the way it’s supposed to be done.”
“Like in Southern food, anyone can make fried chicken,” said the 39-year-old. “But there’s something about a generation-old cast-iron skillet with all the flavors still on it.”
And the customers at the Blue Hill Farmers Market took notice. It was a warm welcome for the Chung family, who have lived in Blue Hill only for one year. Andrew used to work as a stressed-out corporate attorney in Washington, D.C., but felt compelled to give back to Maine after having a pleasant experience there as an undergraduate at Bowdoin.
“We are a Christian family, so he felt like there was something more we could do in terms of ministry, mission work or charitable work,” Gravitt Chung said. “We prayed about it for a really long time and then we packed up our kids and dogs and made the trip to Maine.”
After a few weeks of living in hotels and searching for a house big enough for all of them, the Chungs arrived in Blue Hill, where Andrew works with several nonprofits and his church, St. Francis by the Sea. Meanwhile, Gravitt Chung plans to start marketing her skills as a chef by making a Facebook page and printing out business cards. The hope is that she can start a small catering business of her own.
“Korean culture is what I get to call my own now,” she said. “If I can share this food just with a few people then that would make me happy.”