By Vivienne Mackie
Korea has a rich culinary tradition — one of Asia’s finest — and sampling the many delights is one of the pleasures of visiting the country.
A typical Korean meal is based around boiled rice, a variety of soups, and as many side dishes (called banchan) as the cook can muster that day. In fact, banchan are the hallmark of Korean cuisine and all the Koreans I know pride themselves on the banchan‘s uniqueness and variety. Banchan are usually spicy and accompany virtually every meal, three times a day, so Korean housewives have often commented and complained that they need to spend a lot of time preparing these dishes. At least one kimchi will be included, but there are many other possibilities: tofu, bean sprouts, small anchovies in different sauces, wild green vegetables, spinach, acorn jelly, different seaweeds, sliced garlic cloves.
Of them all, kimchi is the favored side dish and fequently is referred to as the national dish. Koreans serve kimchi at almost every meal, and few Koreans can last more than a few days before cravings get the better of them.
The most common kimchi is baechu kimchi, made from Napa (or Chinese) cabbage mixed with hot red peppers, ginger, garlic, spices and lots of salt. It’s left to pickle in these spices for months. The mixture is believed to be rich in vitamins C, E, and K. However, it is also commonly made from radishes or cucumbers, and many other vegetables are used, such as pumpkin, eggplant and even broccoli.
Some varieties are aged only for hours or days, others for months, even years. Some are fiery hot, many are pungent, others more bland and are called white kimchi — but even these are not red pepper-free. Many areas of the country and most families have their own Kimchi recipe and these may be jealously guarded, as a housewife’s cooking prowess is frequently judged on her kimchi. However, due to time and space constraints, many Koreans nowadays buy their kimchi at stores; my Korean friends do regret this and always wish they could make more of their own.
What is the Origin of this National Dish?
Traditionally, kimchi was made to preserve vegetables and to ensure proper nutrition during the winter months, when fresh produce was unavailable. Even today, late-November to early-December is still the season for gimjang, or making-your-own-kimchi, and many family members and friends get together for a kimchi-making party.
Making kimchi dates back to at least the 13th century. Red chili pepper was only added in the 17th century, when it was introduced to Korea from Europe via Japan, most likely by the Portuguese. Red pepper brought a major change to kimchi and the Korean diet in general, as the Koreans took to the new spice with great gusto.
Traditionally kimchi was buried and stored in large earthenware crocks in the backyard, and kimchi is still made the old-fashioned way in some parts of the Koreas. The producers bury the vegetable mixes in these covered pots and let the vegetables ferment underground over the winter. But for many families today there is no yard, so they invest in a special kimchi fridge, in order to regulate the storage temperature, and prevent kimchi odor from permeating everything else.
There are at least 160 kimchi varieties, differentiated by region and ingredients, most of them quite spicy. It’s not just the basic side dish of the Korean meal. Kimchi is used in other popular dishes, such as kimchi stew, kimchi pancakes, kimchi fried rice, and kimchi ramyeon (ramen noodles).
The city of Gwangju, in far South West Korea, hosts a Gimchi Festival one weekend in late September or early October. Here you can taste every kimchi imaginable, and some that you might never imagine, such as kimchi pizza.
During the 1988 Summer Olympic Games, thousands of foreigners were introduced to kimchi for the first time. Despite a reputation for being spicy, some people develop a taste for it, and many foreigners also find themselves missing it after returning to their home country. Today kimchi can be found in many U.S. food stores, partly because Koreans in the country miss their national dish and partly because Korean cuisine has influenced U.S. eating habits. Kimchi is also gaining popularity worldwide for its nutritional value and disease prevention effects.
It’s interesting that North and South Koreans still share a love of this dish. For decades, they have been political rivals: North Korea is communist and poor while South Korea is non-communist and a world economic power. Despite their differences, both sides still share a taste for kimchi.
For years, North Korea has relied on outside aid to ease food shortages. Many factories have shut down because they lack parts or electricity, yet the kimchi industry still seems to be flourishing.
I have to admit that I’m not especially fond of kimchi and yet, while in South Korea in August, it was great fun learning about the dish and going on a “kimchi quest.” The adventure began with 10 days in the capital, Seoul, where my husband and I ventured out for solo meals as well as dining with Korean hosts. After that we were extremely lucky, as a Korean family included us in a road trip to the Andong and Gyeonju areas in South East Korea. Both parents were determined that we should sample as many Korean foods as possible, so each day was a true gourmet adventure. I believe we tasted the best that Korea has to offer. Because we were mobile in their van, we could explore places very much off the beaten path and could meet many of the local people in small villages and actually see where they were making kimchi, and growing and drying red peppers, sesame seeds and radishes. Our hosts, like most Koreans, are very proud of their cooking traditions and were eager for us to learn about kimchi, so we ended up in many backyards, and saw an amazing number and variety of the large earthenware storage pots. One of the sons liked spicy foods and kimchi, while one did not, so we could taste various foods of all levels of fieryness.
Our final analysis: one certainly needs to acquire a liking for kimchi as it’s so different from most other tastes: salty, sour, fermented, spicy. But, if you find you really cannot like it, don’t worry, because Korean cuisine has so much else to offer.
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