Elwood 5566

Kimchi-ism

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Food and Drink, Quintesentially Korean, seasons, vegetables by 노강호 on August 31, 2010

It smells bad, it can taste revolting, and is a major cause of conflict in university accommodation kitchens worldwide, where the sharp smell oozing from refrigerators upsets non-Koreans. It hangs on your breath with greater offence and persistence than any French gastronomical delight. Garlic can certainly be rude but enhanced and enlivened by numerous chemical processes and suspend in cabbage water and the pungent juices of fermented anchovy, the power to offend becomes a chemical and biological capability.  Nothing is polite about it,  it is totally ‘in your face’ in its onslaught of your taste buds, nasal passages and doesn’t look too pleasant either. It lacks any refinement or subtlety and amongst ‘offensive’ foods ranks as a weapon of mass destruction. You wouldn’t gorge or binge on it, indeed I wouldn’t even call it delicious and I could certainly live without it. If I were to be isolated on a dessert island for a year it wouldn’t be on my list of essential items. And yet paradoxically,  it is one of the most exciting taste sensations in the world. If there is one food so aptly capable of defining a nation, so synonymous with a people, it is cabbage kimchi(배추 김치).

There are many types of kimchi, and of those types many variations, and of those variations many permutations depending on a range of factors. Kimchi is one of numerous  Korean, fermented foods, others including makkalli, bean paste (된장), and soy sauce (간장). Only when kimchiis old enough for the initial processes of fermentation to have ceased, will the  flavour be consistent. At all other times, you can’t eat the same kimchi twice as the taste is always in a state of transition. Canned and packeted kimchi  are available but these should only ever be eaten as a last resort. Canned kimchi, often from China, is especially disgusting!

Welcome to Korea!

Traditional fermented beans (메주)

The most popular type of kimchi, and the one most armed in terms of offensive capability, is cabbage kimchi (배추 김치). Cabbage is well known for its powers to unleash unpleasant odours once its fibers have traversed the intestinal tract and are approaching a transmuted reincarnation via the human Cloaca Maxima. With cabbage kimchi however, your digestive organs can take a break as most of the chemical process which release those aromas, have already been activated and are in a chemical flurry approximate to final stages of processing via the large intestine.  Indeed, I would go as far as suggesting that function of that plastic Tupperware tub or kimchi pot in which kimchi is stored upon being made, is  basically a portable large intestine containing the numerous biological processes.  In that Pandora’s box of mischief: the most infamous kiss-killer of all, garlic, is present in its most potent form, crushed! Added to this is minced ginger, a Korean type of chive (실파) and mooli (무) which while not individually notorious, collectively possess powers of repetition which help strengthen the garlic and intensify its potency. Even at this stage, a burp of this concoction is lethal. Added to this, is the cabbage which after having been submersed in salted water, is already chemically active.

Kkanari - fish sauce - the concentrated odour of a million sweaty feet

The addition of fish sauce, (액젓) famous across the Asia, which is another fermented product made from anchovy or kkanari (까나리 – sand lance), completes the recipe. Of all the noxious odours added to kimchi, anchovy or sand lance sauce is the most vile. I’ve often entertained myself by inviting guests to sniff an open bottle as I’m casually cooking, with a little encouragement such as: ‘smell this, it’s lovely,’ or, ‘this has got to be my most favourite smell.’ Usually, a good whiff will propel them back a few meters with as much force as would a couple of hundred volts of electricity.  Once amassed and fizzling away, the flavours and smells blend in a process which can last a considerable amount of time, depending on temperature.

Comparing the kimchi pot (김치독) or Tupperware tub to a colon is not an exaggeration. I have slept in the same room as as my gestating kimchi and in the first week of fermentation, gasses produced within the Tupperware colon would cause the lid to pop-off about once every twenty-four hours.  If this occurred at night, the escaped aroma was initially enough to wake me. I have since become quiet comfortable sleeping in the same room as fermenting kimchi and find the smell highly evocative – ironically, not evocative of life in Korea, but life back in the UK where living with friends necessitated containing kimchi smells to my bedroom and not the shared kitchen.

Kimchi encapsulates Korea at many levels. Many countries have a national food with which they are identified: Italy – pizza, Germany – sausages or sauerkraut (which is also fermented cabbage), France – smelly, soft cheeses, frog legs, snails and cordon-bleu cooking, England – fish and chips,  roast beef and tea, Scotland – shortbread and haggis, but few have the ability to represent their nation with such precision as does kimchi. While kimchi comes in blaze of spicy colour, the foods of other nations, delicious as they are, remain purely monochrome.

Kimchi is a pot-pourii of Korea, a culinary collage of so many integral Korean elements – garlic, ginger, Korean chili powder (고추 가루), mooli (무) and fish sauce. These ingredients are the basis of almost all Korean cooking and representative of so much of the peninsula’s farming. You can hardly step in a direction without seeing pots of chili, patches of mooli and even on the mountains sides I’ve seen small plots painstakingly hoed out of the rocky soil, blossoming with such vegetables. Local variation on the cabbage kimchirecipe, as well as banchan side dishes in general, and most other Korean foods, adds a further interesting dimension.  While many national foods are now factory produced, often resulting in grossly inferior products (shortbread is a good example), kimchi, even when sold in markets, is homemade and its production evokes a great sense of pride. Korean women, and even some men,  are proud of their kimchi making prowess and whenever a gift of kimchi is given, it should be respected.

The making of kimchi is very much determined by the seasons with particular kimchibeing made at certain times of year, and for cabbage kimchi, this is late Autumn to early winter.  One of my most memorable images of Korea was seeing an enormous stack of Chinese cabbage (배추) outside Shinoo Supermarket, in Song-So, swathed in wintry mist and beside which a couple of store workers huddled around a bonfire burning on the pavement. I’ve never see such a sight since.  And when it is time to make kimchi, members of the family or friends, sometimes communities,   females more than males, are brought together.

Kimchi pots (김치독) at Keimyung University

There is always a random element in kimchi production, something beyond the control of the ‘cook’, and  hence tasting the final product is always an exciting moment. Like making English tea, you can follow the recipe and time the brewing meticulously, but the production is influenced by factors beyond the recipe, it might be the temperature, the humidity or the quality of ingredients of that particular season. Part of the fun  involved in kimchi making is the pursuit of perfection in the light of random influences. And if the kimchi itself isn’t synonymous with Korea, the pots (김치독) in which it is traditionally stored, can be seen sitting in vacant corners, on rooftop and apartment verandas across the entire peninsula. The kimchi pot is as Korean as soju, mountain temples and the cawing of the magpie and their production an ancient and noble art. But the making of kimchihas also kept abreast of modern developments. Kimchi has traveled into space  and the kimchi refrigerator is now a popular sight in many Korean homes.

My kimchi 'colon'

Learning how to make kimchi and any of the extensive range of side dishes collectively known as banchan (반찬) and of which cabbage kimchi is the King, is difficult. In my area of Daegu are three small shops which produce homemade banchan but they staff don’t like being photographed or watched whilst working. My grandmother, the daughter of a Scottish baker, was just as defensive about her shortbread which was superior to any factory produced shortbreads.

Waygukins and Koreans alike will never grasp the potential of their smelly delicacy until they are able to eat and smell it in isolation, basically, outside of Korea. Like, garlic, the best defense from the offensive smell is to ingest it yourself and once you do that you no longer notice it. You can walk in and out of Koreans homes and their restaurants and never really smell kimchi and yet the whole nation reeks of it  and everywhere everyone chuffes out its pungent odours. The only reason you don’t smell it is partly because you have acclimatised to it and because you eat it.  I remember arriving at Kimpo International Airport after a holiday, and as I walked into the arrivals hall I suddenly noticed the smell of kimchibut no sooner had I noticed it, than it disappeared. But if you visit Korean friends in the UK, or they visit your house, the odour of kimchiand of garlic is very strong and even unpleasant. I often notice how Korean Air and Emirates, provide Korean meals and kimchi on flights into Seoul and wonder if this is to acclimatise passengers to the guff of garlic and kimchi, prior to landing.

The taste of kimchi has a bizarre appeal and every Korean has a liking for a particular type; for some it’s fresh kimchi in which the fermentation hasn’t really started, for others it’s the tangy bite of old kimchi which draws your tongue like cold tea or strong red wine. And it can be used in a multitude of ways: barbecued, added to stews, used for soup, put into pancakes, fried with rice, minced into hamburger patties, rinsed in water  and added to cold soups chilled with ice cubes. When the fermentation process has stopped, and kimchi is left standing,  sometimes for months, it is often attacked by a glueppy white mold which lays over the uppermost leaves. At this stage the kimchi is at its  sourest and is ideal for cooking kimchi stew (김치찌개), the mold simply being washed off. I don’t think any westerner truly enjoys kimchi first time, but the more we  familiarise ourselves with its guises, idiosyncrasies and long and ancient history, the more entrenched our love affair with it becomes and the more we defend it to those barbarians who claim it stinks or tastes revolting!

Kimchi Stew

Twisting and weaving into Korea’s distant past, like one of the gnarled and knotted roots on the mountains, Kimchi, like its people, has endured and adapted.  Originally it wouldn’t have contained chili, this being an addition sometime after 1500, when the chili plant arrived in Korea.  Of all the foods capable of representing a nation, kimchi is the most personal, the most intimate  and the most capable of embodying Korea. It transcends simply being a product of the soil, its production etches out a seasonal calendar, it brings families and communities together,  it provides both national and regional identity with space for a little individual flare, and at tables across the country people bond as individual batches are critiqued, compared and celebrated. Even the frosty bite of winter and the hot balmy days of hanyorum (high summer) have a role to play in determining the flavour. In the past, Koreans believed that the foods that suited individuals best were the ones grown in the soil in which their ancestors had both toiled and been buried. It was the ‘fruits’ of the soil which powered families across the generations. When companies produce canned kimchi, or even packeted kimchi, they grossly miss the mark because not only is it supposed to  be alive and active, but it has to be Korean. Dead kimchi, kimchi castrated of its chemical process is not kimchi and indeed Koreans have taken foreign kimchi producers to international court over such issues. You can eat French brie or Camembert made in Spain and probably not notice a difference, but kimchi that is dead or not even from Korea, is simply not kimchi.

Useful Resources:

Kimchi in Wikipedia

Beyond the Blog – Maangchi: Queen of Korean Cooking

Creative Commons License© Nick Elwood 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

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4 Responses

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  1. Chris in South Korea said, on September 1, 2010 at 6:08 am

    Interesting article, but… did you link yourself enough?? Google tends to penalize overly self-linking…

    • Nick said, on September 1, 2010 at 12:44 pm

      I had no idea. I though that was what you did…dumb me!! Thanks, I’m going to remove them and probably just put one at the bottom. Let me know if I’m not doing the right thing – thanks.

  2. Matt said, on September 2, 2010 at 5:35 am

    I remember opening my fridge door once – the fridge contained a dodgy dose of kimchi and it smelt like someone had taken a fresh steaming dump in the kitchen. Still, didn’t put me of kimchi – love that fetid cabbage

    • Nick said, on September 8, 2010 at 2:29 pm

      I know that e-mail. Are you stalking me? xxx


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