JEJU-DO—I’ve been meaning to respond to a reader of my post on weird Korean stuff, who suggested that I should have included kimchi. There’s a good reason I didn’t. For every item on that list, I’m sure you could find at least a few Koreans to vouch for its weirdness—someone to say, “Listen, I agree with you: It’s a little off that my kid wants to stick his finger up your ass.”
I don’t believe there is a Korean person alive or dead who would concede that kimchi is weird. Nor, having lived in Korea for more than a year, am I able to do so. (Smelly, yes; weird, no.) In Korea, kimchi is more than a foodstuff. It’s a national icon, a cultural treasure, a palpable expression of the country’s feisty spirit and determination throughout history to grow and protect its own unique soul—to resist wholesale assimilation into the more megalithic cultures of Asia, through culinary defense. It’s a cure-all, a protective shield, a magic balm and a goddess of plenty. Without kimchi, Korea would not be the same country—there might be a nation in the same place, and it might even be called the same thing, but it would not be Korea.
If you think I’m exaggerating, you haven’t been to Korea. It’s enough that the stuff is ubiquitous: outside of Western-style fast food, there is not a single meal eaten here that does not somehow incorporate kimchi. According to the International Herald Tribune, Koreans eat more than 1.6 million tons of kimchi every year. But it’s more than its presence on tables that makes it so important and so prevalent. Fat brown kimchi pots and huge bales of leafy green cabbage are mainstays of the Korean countryside, giving it its own contours and mood. The ajummas hunched in the field, digging radishes and scallions for the winter gimjang out of the soil with thin trowels, are Korea’s iconic naifs, Millet’s gleaners dressed in blue polyurethane visors and floral blouses. When Koreans pose for photos, it’s not cheese they invoke to bring smiles to the faces of the subjects, but “Kimchi!” Kimchi is monumental in a way that no prepared North American foodstuff can ever hope to be—it is a touchstone of Korean life, the leafy skein from which the country’s history and self-image has been woven.
In case you don’t know, kimchi is basically fermented vegetables, which these days are usually (but not always) heavily spiced with garlic, ginger and red hot pepper flakes. The most common type is baechu, made by rubbing a spice paste in between leaves of a whole head of brined Napa cabbage, which is then put aside to ferment for a number of days. This is what most people think of when they think of kimchi: the hot-and-sour leaves that are both wilted and crunchy at the same time. But there are more than two hundred varieties of kimchi, from cucumber to pumpkin, served in dozens of styles.
Mul (water) kimchi is served floating in a chilly brine; bae is pale white cabbage kimchi made with no spice at all. Kimchi can be stewed in boiling water to make kimchi jjigae, a bubbling stew served in a stone pot, or placed on a griddle as a kind of grease mop for samgyeopsal, which is essentially bacon cut thick and fried on a hot slab. It can be diced up in fried rice, or stuffed into dried seaweed and rice rolls to create kimbap, the Korean version of Japanese maki. I personally enjoy it sautéed with onions and chopped ham, then piled on toasted crusty bread and topped with crumbly cheddar cheese. It is one of the most diverse ingredients I’ve ever used—provided you’re working with flavours strong enough to compete, there’s not much you can’t throw a handful of kimchi into for a bit of extra zing.
And those are just its gastronomic advantages. There are myriad ways kimchi approaches the sublime. Take its health properties. Kimchi is widely regarded among nutritionists as one of the healthiest foods on the planet, full of helpful vitamins and bacteria that promotes digestion. Among Koreans, it is regarded as a manbyongtongchiyak—a kind of miracle cure—that will help make you strong, prevent cancer and generally give you a garlicky glow, something like a halo, of kimchi-fueled health. My boss, a rail-thin woman who calls herself Beauty and probably eats birdseed nine out of ten meals, told me with a straight face and very serious eyes that Korea was spared the scourge of SARS because of kimchi. If bird flu ever reaches the status of a genuine pandemic, expect Korean authorities to unleash an army of trucks to drive the city streets, hosing down everything that moves with a slurry of minced kimchi and soju.
Speaking of bird flu, there’s evidence that health is just one aspect of what’s developing into a distinct branch of commercial pop science based on kimchi’s good reputation. In addition to the ubiquitous kimchi fridge, LG, one of Korea’s largest conglomerates, a company that has found great success in the Western, non-kimchi crazed world—indeed, they are the world’s leading manufacturer of air conditioners—recently marketed an aircon unit they claim uses “kimchi technology” to kill the H5N1 virus. It sounds ridiculous, but given the lack of other solutions proposed in the event of a global superplague, I’ll happily try strapping a leaf or two of ripe kimchi to my face; if nothing else, it would at least keep potential carriers away from me, because who wants to hang out with a guy that smells like a used gym sock soaked in fish puke?
Which is to say, I can understand people’s aversion to kimchi. My friend Dohyeon has a great story about the time she flew to America to stay for a couple years. Korean moms having the same tendency to worry that moms everywhere have, Dohyeon’s mother decided to make sure her daughter would be well-equipped for her long journey, and packed a big box of her best, most potent homemade kimchi. As Dohyeon waited to retrieve her baggage at LAX, the people around her began to get odd expressions on their faces. Soon, the whole hangar was full of a weird, acidic fog. Some bystanders looked suspiciously at the hind regions of their fellow travelers, others feared an attack with chemical weapons. But Dohyeon knew. She stood sheepishly as her mom’s fragrant treat rolled out on the carousel, and although she was somewhat mortified at having to claim the stink as her property, she couldn’t bring herself to disown the parcel: “It was my mom’s kimchi,” she told me, her tone conveying the near-sacred status the stuff had in her heart.
Kimchi hasn’t always been the spicy, odoriferous beast it is today. The first mentions of kimchi in historical records suggest it was being eaten in Korea as early as the seventh century, during the Three Kingdoms period. For a long time—about a thousand years—most kimchi was simply pickled; chili wasn’t involved. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that Koreans began regularly adding chili, first brought to the country by the Japanese in 1592, to what would become their signature dish, and to develop the modern version of kimchi that is so easily identified by its fervent red hue. These days, spice is integral to ideas of kimchi in both the West and Korea—it’s always a funny game trying to convince various restaurant ladies here that I can, in fact, eat kimchi without spewing two ribbons of fire from my nostrils, thereby singing the wallpaper and confirming their suspicions that we white folks are just a bunch of food pussies. “Maeun-kot” (“spicy shit!”), they say, making flamey-flamey motions with their hands; “Yes,” I say, “Maeun umshik-ul chal mogoyo” (“I can eat spicy food, no lie, please stop looking at me like I’m a recalcitrant goat who’s about to try to eat a roll of barbed wire”).
Last year, when I was attempting to transform myself into a Korean in as many ways possible, I took a shot at making my own kimchi, with mixed results—one of the batches I made was a little too heavy on the ginger and the other was salty enough to strip paint with. Aside from the outcome, though, the process was both pleasant and rewarding, and gave me a much better understanding of the dish’s exalted aura. Grinding the garlic and ginger, adding just enough dried red chili pepper powder (called gochugaru), and massaging the mixture into every crease and crevasse of a head of soggy Napa cabbage had elements of worship in it, as did waiting several days for the flavours to meld and balance properly in the fridge. It’s a very physical thing, involving a lot of tactile sensation—the burn of the chili powder tingled on my hands for almost a whole day after the rubdown. When I told my Korean friends I’d tried it, their eyes goggled in disbelief: “I can’t even make kimchi,” they said, “only grandmothers [do that].” It seems that learning the secrets of kimchi-making is a kind of rite of passage for Korean women, an essential step in the progression from youth to adulthood.
There are whole books to be written on the subject of kimchi—its production, its culinary diversity, its place in the Korean psyche. A few years ago, the Agricultural and Fisheries Marketing Corporation of Korea teamed up with French cooking school Le Cordon Bleu to publish a cookbook featuring fusion recipes using kimchi, designed to promote the dish around the world—suggesting that as Korean ambassadors go, Ban Ki-moon has nothing on kimchi.
The point was proven further this past February, when Korea sent their first astronaut into space. Quoth Kim Sung-soo, an official from the Korea Food Research Institute: “If a Korean goes to space, kimchi must go there, too.” Hence the newest incarnation of the dish: space kimchi, given to astronaut Yi So-yeon to take on the Russia-sponsored mission. Scientists spent millions of dollars to develop kimchi suitable for interstellar consumption, and with good reason: they had to find a way to eliminate the bacteria in kimchi, which they feared might mutate when exposed to cosmic rays. Representatives from the Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute cited fears that the fermented kimchi might froth up and make a mess on the spaceship, but I don’t believe that atomic scientists are as concerned about mess as they are about the possibility of creating a berserk kimchi space monster capable of blanketing the earth in a giant kimchi funk, or perhaps even colonizing its own kimchi planet and plotting universal domination through the fermentation of the sun.
Maybe that’s a stretch. But I am convinced there is at least one major role for kimchi to play on the global political stage. If the two Koreas ever do unite again, I propose that, in place of either the South’s Taegeukgi or the North’s Soviet-inspired red star, the new country simply runs ragged pieces of baechu kimchi up its flagpoles to flap in the wind, spreading the redolent, sour scent of ferment and spice across the land. And I posit that the reunited country should take its cue from kimchi, in which a team of stubborn flavours—all of which can, on their own, easily dominate a weaker dish—combine to create a harmony of strength and adaptability, a unity of proud, singular flavours that is in itself utterly unique in the spectrum of taste. Because, as a wise man once said—if I’m remembering this correctly—“kimchi is truth, truth kimchi; that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”