• Kimchi Culture
  • Kimchi Culture

Kimchi Culture

An article for Delta Sky magazine

It is the stuff of ancient legend, and even of poetry. Songs are sung of it, odes penned, memories and meals made complete by it. Unless you dine only in fast food restaurants and hotel coffee shops it will be your most enduring gustatory memory of Korea. Kimchi is the great culinary constant of Korean daily life, that sine qua non without which the domestic culture would find itself bereft. It is often called “Korean sauerkraut.” And pickled cabbage it may be, but it is sauerkraut raised to the Nth degree, in a process that imbues the humble cabbage with the last possible iota of gastronomic pleasure. Mere leaves are elevated to seductive and sensual delight, to the ultimate Korean comfort food. And it is not only a side dish for Koreans, it’s almost a cult. They simply cannot have a proper meal without it. But it isn’t merely a recipe, it’s a concept. It’s not unlike pizza or minestrone in that regard. It’s not a thing, but a way of doing a thing.

In simplest terms, kimchi is cabbage cured in brine then pickled with spices. The spices can be almost anything the kimchi maker desires. Common among them are garlic, cardomom, cloves, ginger, scallions. But the one that every kimchi simply must have is red pepper. And lots of it. This can be positively incendiary stuff. So if you like a good four-alarm chile, you’re going to be in Hot Mouth Heaven when in Korea. But if the zing and sting of the pungent pod are not quite your cup of tea, don’t despair. There is no need to eat this stuff straight. Indeed, it is usually taken in small bites along with rice and other foods, its chief purpose being to perk up something otherwise bland, and to cleanse the palate of fats and starch. Then again, there are those who eat it straight out of the jar.

The word kimchi means “sunken vegetable.” This is taken from the practice of “sinking” cabbage or other vegetables in brine in order to start the pickling process. Korean winters are long and harsh. Survival has always required a bountiful supply of preserved foods. After simple drying and salting, pickling is the most ancient method of preserving food. The process relies on a “good” microbe to convert sugars into lactic acid. This particular bug’s name is lactobacillus. As the population of  lactobacilli grows, it feeds on the natural sugars in the plant juices and produces lactic acid as its waste product. The more they consume, the more lactic acid they release. And it is this highly acidic environment that prevents the growth of other “bad” microbes that would otherwise eat the plant juices and cause decay.

There is no document that says “On this day kimchi was first made,” for kimchi predates the written word. But the earliest record we have of kimchi is found in the Book of Odes, a collection of poetry, circa 1000 BC. The legend of kimchi’s origin tells of a poor farmer whose stock of vegetables had been reduced to a few withered old cabbages. Thinking he might freshen them he soaked them briefly in seawater. The rather dry leaves absorbed some of the water and swelled to a plumper size. The farmer, pleased with result, left them in the water overnight, thinking he might awake to giant cabbages. On the contrary, the salt leached out much of the cabbages’ juice and left them even smaller than before. Thinking he had been robbed, he swore vengeance on the thief. Then in hungry despair he tore off a wilted leaf and ate it. It was delicious! The farmer proclaimed kimchi to be the tasty step child of disaster.

Kimchi has an infinite range of expression. While the basic recipe calls for cabbage, anything that grows in the ground can find its way into the kimchi crock. Daikon radishes are common, as are squashes, onions, eggplants and carrots, even fruits such as apples and pears. A variety of leafy greens can be rendered into kimchi. You can tell the season the year by the kimchi. In the Spring when the crabs are running their shells are stuffed with it. In June and July the kimchi is often made with summer radish; in the Fall ponytail radish is popular as the basis for a specialty kimchi; and Winter is the best time for the most traditional cabbage kimchi. It can be spiced or plain, flavored with soy sauce or with smoked or fermented fish, sprinkled with sesame seeds or even mellowed with green tea.

Walk through the streets of any Korean town in November. This is the time of the “kimjiang,” kimchi making time. Kimchi can be made of anything anytime, but in November the cabbage harvest is being brought in, and families are making their chief supply for the months till Spring. You’ll see pyramids of cabbages heaped on street corners, apartment balconies covered with them and the earthenware crocks in which they’ll ferment. Whole neighborhoods will be cloaked in the spicy, tangy, come-hither aroma of kimchi. Employers give their workers their annual “kimchi bonus” to enable them to buy all the cabbages and crocks they will need for the occasion.

Kimchi goes beyond the belly in Korea. It is a culinary marker of the Korean concept of the universe. Yin-yang, that symbol you see on the Korean flag, is the emblem of universal harmony. It represents the balance of all things: light and dark, male and female, hot and cold, etc. When things are in their proper balance, harmony reigns. This philosophy extends to all aspects of life, even to the table. Whereas a western meal with its succession of courses is like a narrative, with a beginning, a middle and an end, a Korean meal is like a constellation. It doesn’t move from A to B, but presents itself in its balanced entirety. All dishes are served at the same time with their colors, textures, tastes and smells in balance and harmony. The white blandness of rice, the fattiness of meats, the soft delicacy of fresh vegetables, all are brought into balance by the vividness and vibrance, the tang and tartness and crunch of kimchi. It is the kimchi that allows the thoughtful and reflective Korean diner to dine not only on food for the body, but on the elemental harmony of the universe.

 

Mat-itkae duseo! (Bon appetite!)

 

Can’t get enough of a good thing? Then why not pay a visit to the Kimchi Museum in Seoul? The kimchi making process and its gustatory history are there for the viewing. Earthenware storage vessels, stoneware mortars, and life-like food facsimiles are also part of the exhibition. Upon entering you’ll see on the wall a 12th-century poem by Yi Kyu-bo: “Put the leaves into soy sauce and eat them in summer, and pickle them for winter.” Brochures are available in English.

 

Address: B2, COEX MALL 159 Samsung, dong Kangnam, Seoul.

Or you can take the subway to Samsung station (COEX station) on the Green Line.

 

Admission:

Adults: 3000 won

Children:1000 won

 

Telephone: 02-6002-6456

Fax: 02-6002-6457

Home Page: http://www.kimchimuseum.org

 

Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 10a.m.-5p.m.; Sunday 1p.m.-5p.m.

 

RECIPE

Ingredients

1 head of white cabbage.

1/2 gallon fresh water

1 cup salt

1 pint vinegar

1 quart water

1 cup salt

6 cloves of garlic (optional)

1 tablespoon red pepper

 

Preparation

Dissolve the salt in the wa ter. Cut the cabbage into chunks about the size of an egg, and soak them overnight in the salted water. Drain the cabbage and squeeze it dry. Combine water, vinegar and salt and bring the mixture to a boil, then let cool to room temperature. Combine the cabbage, garlic and pepper in a glass container, pour the vinegar mixture in and cover. Store the jar in a cool, dark place for 1 week. Drain off the liquid and bring it to a boil. Place the cabbage in a clean container, pour the hot liquid over it, let it cool, then cover it. It will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator.