Short-grain white rice is the foundation of many traditional Korean meals; it sops up stews and sauces, delivers a counterpoint to gochugaru’s punch, and adds substance to banchan. With rice such an essential ingredient, many Koreans have been getting exceedingly granular about it, much like the celebration of heritage wheat among new-wave bakeries and artisan pasta makers.
Atomix from Junghyun and Ellia Park is one of the restaurants that lit up over a rare rice find. The Golden Queen III rice was a marvel to the staff: shorter and plumper than the mass-market varieties available to consumers — and pristine — without dents or shards. The grains were glossy and chewy, yet did not glom onto each other. If there were a rice magazine, it would make the cover. When cooked, it released a surprising, intense bouquet of buttery popcorn.
These characteristics made the Golden Queen rice, minted in South Korea, one of the most coveted ingredients among the upper echelons of NYC’s Korean dining establishments, including Genesis House in the Meatpacking District — a partnership of chefs from renowned Onjium in Seoul, and executive chef Andrew Choi in NYC — Cote Steakhouse in Flatiron, and Hooni Kim’s upscale tasting menu spot, Meju (set to open in Long Island City in October), in addition to Atomix.
Many Americans regard rice as a filler product even if their rice picks are more discerning than Ben’s Original or Rice-A-Roni. But chefs like Southern cuisine’s Sean Brock are going beyond basmati and jasmine in championing grains like Carolina Gold. Over in Harlem, JJ Johnson is building a fast-casual empire on the premise that customers would flock to meals centered on rice from around the world. And Chintan Pandya debuted Gobindobhog grains at Masalawala & Sons in Park Slope. For Korean American chefs with ties to a country that once cultivated 1,400 rice varieties, the time is ripe to usher in artisanal rice like the Golden Queen into some of the most respected restaurants in New York.
When Junghyun Park heard the tantalizing dispatches of the Golden Queen from his friends in Korea, he was using medium-grain Kyong Gi Me rice grown in California and short-grain Koshihikari from Japan. Meanwhile, Onjium’s chefs were already in the know, and as they put together the menu at their NYC counterpart, they couldn’t fathom using U.S.-grown rice. The terrain is optimized for medium grains that get dispersed to Korean grocery stores and warehouses, where they sit for who knows how long. So Choi found himself wading through lush rice fields at Saedeulman Farm on a research expedition. When he saw golden droplets of rice down the tips of green stalks, he had to get these grains at his restaurant.
But where could Park and Choi — both driven to up their game in this Gilded Age of Korean fine dining — find them in NYC? As far as they knew, no supply chain linked these farmers in Korea to distributors in the U.S. Through his Onjium network, Choi had the staff fly out bags of Golden Queen to him. But something was off: It just didn’t taste as good as in Korea.
In February 2020, Choi sat at a bar in Seoul’s Itaewon, an international nightlife hotspot, with Hooni Kim, then chef-owner of Danji and now-closed Hanjan. Over drinks, Hooni disclosed his exclusive NYC connection for the Golden Queen: Kim’C Market in Brooklyn Navy Yard. Meanwhile, Park took to Instagram to hunt down a quality rice source, and he also came across Kim’C Market. He nabbed an appointment to see the exalted grains in person.
At Brooklyn Navy Yard, Kim’C Market is housed in an industrial office building. Inside, shelves brim with products like 1,000-day-aged vintage organic gochujang and seaweed handpicked by haenyeo, the women free-divers of Jeju Island. A luxury stash of only the highest caliber of Korean foods was sprawled out in front of Park and Choi on their maiden visits. Founder Ryan Kim escorted them to his single-origin rice corner in the back. Here was their jackpot: Park and Choi ordered several rice samples.
Back at Atomix, the staff huddled around Park for a tasting of the rice varieties from Kim’C Market. The Golden Queen stole the show. Popcorn aroma aside, “we were so impressed with how rice could make this beautiful, sweet flavor,” Park says.
It wasn’t nature’s doing. The Golden Queen was conceived in a laboratory by rice breeder and CEO of Seedpia, Dr. Yoo-Hyun Cho, in 1997, and all the hallmarks of its magnificence were carefully engineered genetic markers. “I wanted to make the best rice variety in Korea,” he says.
His ambition was fueled partly by postcolonial nationalism (an attempt to reclaim Korean land growing high-end Japanese rice) and partly by food economics. Rice consumption was steadily losing out to low-carb diets and globalized meals. The Korean government, on the same page as Dr. Cho, invested in cultivating new grains and implementing organic farming practices. In 2006, 1.2 percent of Korea’s farmland was used to grow premium Korean-bred grains; it’s now 25 percent, and the Rural Development Administration expects that allotment to keep growing.
For his Golden Queen, Dr. Cho tapped into Korea’s collective nostalgia, injecting the grains with a fragrance, not of popcorn, but rather nurungji, the scorched rice traditionally found at the bottom of pots, now supplanted by electric rice cookers. He dialed down amylose and protein levels so the rice would stay sticky and moist longer. And for the farmers, he produced hardier crops. After one failure — the Golden Queen I — and one inferior but still cultivated product, the Golden Queen III emerged.
Through decades, Dr. Cho’s Golden Queen made its way south from his lab in Gyeonggi Province to Saedeulman Farm in Chungcheong, and finally a smidgen of the yield — less than 0.01 percent — into refrigerated containers kept at exactly 16° C (60.8° F), per Kim’s specifications, for shipment across the Pacific Ocean to the Navy Yard.
The grains were spectacular, but like Choi, Kim tasted something amiss. Oxidation had diluted the flavor. Following standard protocol, the farmers had first removed the hulls from the harvested grains — producing brown rice — and then stripped off the bran to yield pearly white kernels. That second milling had left the grains exposed. “They just didn’t taste as fresh,” Kim says. He couldn’t do anything about the first milling, per U.S. import regulations, but maybe he could edge that second step even closer to consumption. He scoured the globe for a milling machine, and after 13 months of wrangling in broken Japanese, he purchased one from the manufacturer in Japan in 2021.
“You tell me how you want your rice,” Kim says. “I can mill it for you right here in Brooklyn.”
The on-site, customizable milling grants chefs access to infinite flavors and textures. At Genesis House, the Golden Queen regales the snow crab rice dish. With 70 percent of its bran scrapped, it’s lighter on the palate, and just a tad nutty and firm, Choi says. For this dish, he adds two other grains: the sweeter Samgwang, and the even sweeter Hitomeborae. The carefully crafted blend soaks up the oceanic umami from a kelp and crab shell stock and creates a shimmering bed for hefty slabs of crab meat. In a side-by-side comparison, a spoonful of mass-market U.S.-grown Rhee Chun rice appears longer, skinnier, more pliant, and dented. Each grain is neither as glossy nor as distinctive.
In Park’s new fall menu for Atomix, buxom kernels of the Golden Queen gleam with sesame oil and flecks of roasted seaweed. With 100 percent of the bran whittled off days ago, the rice introduces new dimensions — “a soft texture and natural sweetness,” Park says — to the more intensely flavored toppings like kimchi and beetroot marinated in barbecue seasoning.
Hooni Kim, however, nixed the idea of serving the Golden Queen at Danji and Hanjan. “It’s just so expensive,” he says. “I can’t charge $20 for a bowl of rice.” To give a sense of the pricing differential against popular white rice brands at H Mart: A 40-pound bag of Kyong Gi Me retails for $42 ($1.05 per pound); 15 pounds of Nishiki, $29 ($1.93 per pound); and five pounds of Kim’C Market’s Golden Queen, $26 ($5.20 per pound).
Thanks to monied consumers, Kim’s rice has fanned out through NYC and beyond — five, soon seven, single-origin cultivars with milling dates on the package. At Cote, the Golden Queen decks itself out with an amber heritage egg yolk so vibrant it glows. Kim’s Gawaji is stocked for retail at Hooni’s recently opened Little Banchan Shop, and will star in one course at Meju. Outside of the Korean American circuit, Prospect Butcher Co. co-founder, Greg Brockman, hails the texture of Samgwang, which is sold at his shop. “I’m not really a rice guy,” he says. “But this is a revelation.” Across the U.S., Clover Food Lab and Milk Street in Boston, as well as the San Francisco-based Mins Group (which owns upscale spot Suragan), have bought in. Business owners in Austin, Texas, and Gilbert, Arizona, have also rung Kim.
From chefs calibrating blends to Kim milling imported grains in Brooklyn, the Golden Queen captures the endless pursuit of perfection. “Nothing’s ever perfect,” says Choi, but they can try: In Korea, Dr. Cho is tinkering with a fourth line of progeny of the Golden Queen, and its sister is planned for distribution this fall. Kim has already put in an order for it.
Caroline Shin is a Queens-raised food journalist and founder of the Cooking with Granny YouTube and workshop series spotlighting immigrant grandmothers. Follow her on Instagram @CookingWGranny.