HEATseeker Kenji Morimoto

Fly By Jing is celebrating AAPI Heritage Month with a new HEATSEEKERS series, where we highlight innovators generating exciting energy across diverse realms. Keep following for more kindred spirits who embody the hustle and bustle of RÉ NAO 热闹

Kenji Morimoto wants you to ferment. It’s a scientific process steeped in history but really, he says, it’s easier than you might think. You might see him with a bubbling batch of kombucha, a tray brimming with easy Japanese pickles, or sunny butternut miso — and explaining its process to his followers with an easy disposition. We can’t wait for you to learn all about Kenji, a bubbling and enthusiastic home cook and fermenter who, like us, loves a good flavorful meal.

Who fuels you to do your work?

My family and particularly the women in my family fuel everything I do. Growing up in a close knit community and privileged to have had both sets of grandparents 15 minutes away from my house, I was constantly in awe of their hard work, resilience, and ability to create a strong Japanese American identity for my sister and I truly against all odds. My grandmothers were both incredible cooks and took such pride in creating elaborate Japanese meals for our family, often single handedly. I spent countless hours in the kitchen with them, watching their moves and asking them questions. Their memory and their legacy fuels everything I do.

Give me your hottest take about fermentation

Fermentation is EASY. It may seem scary or that it requires a ton of equipment but remember this: all of our ancestors fermented and preserved food as a means of survival without any fancy equipment. They trusted their intuition and through this, they innovated and created such a tremendous culinary legacy.

What has recently inspired you that you weren’t expecting?

Vinegar! Fermentation is such a rabbit hole and I've tried to draw a line in the sand for what I want to explore and create. Vinegar was one item I didn't envision jumping into but it's incredibly versatile and is a true masterclass in the power of microbes.

Tell me about a life experience that expanded your mind?

After university I worked and lived in India for several years and it was there I not only started to ferment but really started to explore by adapting familiar recipes to local ingredients — this was actually how I started making kimchi! This experience was formative in how I approach food and fermentation, both in how I cook at home and how I explore global techniques and traditions.

Describe a meal that changed your life

Growing up my family often spent summers in Kyoto and we used to live above a very old tsukemono (Japanese pickled vegetable) shop. I distinctly remember the Japanese breakfasts they'd prepare - grilled salmon, miso soup, a few side dishes, and of course, many varieties of pickles. It was here I really saw the amazing diversity of Japanese pickles and what they can offer to a meal.

What are you hoping to spark with your work?

Communication and collaboration. Preservation through both pickling and fermentation is a part of all of us regardless of where you're from. We're now in a fermentation renaissance and there's so much we can learn from one another, by connecting those culinary dots and celebrating the common ground we all share.

What is a place that grounds you?

My Buddhist temple in Chicago. It was built by my relatives after WWII internment, where I spent every Sunday as a child, where my grandparents, parents, and I got married, and where my grandparents' ashes are kept. It's the center of my community and my culture, and a physical reminder of their resilience.