Kimchi, a fermented cabbage dish that Koreans have been making for thousands of years, was traditionally stored underground in clay pots to regulate its temperature. Although Bajo Tierra Kitchen owners Cynthia Smith and Elianna Madril don’t ferment their Sonoran Kimchi underground, the name (which translates to “below the earth”) serves as an homage to its origins. In fact, Bajo Tierra Kitchen’s products are a direct reflection of the local crops in Baja Arizona.
Smith and Madril bonded over their love for food and cooking while working at Café Passe. Although the friends both enjoy the taste and health benefits of kimchi, the decision to base a business off of it stemmed from their desire to reduce food waste at local farms. When Smith and Madril began working at Sleeping Frog Farms and Tucson Village Farm, respectively, they noticed a large amount of produce left over from weekly farmers’ markets. Making kimchi—fermented cabbage packed with carrots, onions, daikon radish, ginger, garlic, and fresh chili peppers—seemed like the perfect way to ensure that this local produce would go to good use.
“When we first started, we wanted [the kimchi] to be as traditional as possible,” Smith said. However, their desire to source locally led them to the slightly adapted, yet still entirely delicious, Sonoran Kimchi recipe they now use. The combination of sweet peppers and chiltepins used in Bajo Tierra Kitchen’s Sonoran Kimchi adds to it the flavor of Baja Arizona. Smith and Madril source much of their produce through Pivot Produce and Sleeping Frog Farms; and when they can’t find an ingredient locally, they buy organic. While they’re doing their best to source locally, Smith and Madril ultimately hope to increase the variety of products they sell to let them use more leftover produce from local farms.
Smith, who wrote the business plan for Bajo Tierra Kitchen while studying retail and consumer sciences at the University of Arizona, always intended for the business to sell multiple products. In addition to preventing more food waste, adding new products to the line will increase their affordability and enable more people to try fermented foods. Those who can’t afford the $13 Sonoran Kimchi, for example, might be able to afford a jar of sauerkraut ($10).
However, the 20-to-30-day process of fermenting their products and sequentially receiving approval by the FDA make expansion a lengthy endeavor. Smith and Madril hope to eventually get their products into larger stores such as Whole Foods and Sprouts. For now, their local kimchi and sauerkraut await Tucsonans above the earth at Food Conspiracy Co-op and the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market.