Elwood 5566

Killing Kimchi and Murdering Makgeolli!

Posted in 'Westernization' of Korea, Food and Drink, rice wine (beer), vodcast by 노강호 on March 10, 2012

I’ve recently posted my new video on how to make makgeolli, but before that…

One of my Korean friends recently questioned the point of making makgeolli when it is so much easier to buy! Where do you begin? I love randomness! I hate straight cucumbers, regimented onions and all vegetables that have been forced to conform. Back in Europe, the big supermarkets, citadels of conformity, reject fruit and vegetables that aren’t a specific size and shape and I can remember a few years ago when it was a common sight to see piles of onions on the edge of a field that farmers couldn’t sell and to which you could help yourself. If I recall, it was a kind protest by farmers against the big buyers. One of the vegetables I hate buying in Korea is the courgette-like vegetable which you only seem able to buy encased in a plastic straight-jacket. Trapped inside its constraint, every vegetable grows to exactly the same dimensions and no more. What ‘ fascist farmers’ forum’ decide on the specific dimensions of a courgette?

bent and wonky – banned by the big supermarkets

Market forces have already started killing kimchi and makgeolli. Fermentation processes, in which the development of something continues post the point of production, hinder the standardization that supermarkets encourage. It might seem an irrelevant point now, but I know several Korean women who can’t make kimchi and instead rely on their mothers for a regular supply. As for Korean men, most just about have the culinary skills to add water to  a pot of ramyon (noodles) or make a cup of coffee – with mix. Sorry guys! . When the older generation of kimchi makers have died out, I would imagine a lot of women will turn to supermarkets for their fix of kimchi and from that point the gradually numbing of taste buds will lead to shit, factory made kimchi becoming the bench mark.

MacDonald’s have done exactly the same with the noble burger. If you’ve ever had a real American burger, ‘loaded,’ you’ll know how superior they are. In the USA, I’d say most people have no idea what real chocolate tastes like after years of rape by crap like Hershey’s. British people aren’t more discerning. I once gave a class of 17-year-old British kids decent chocolate (Lindt 70% milk, Excellence) and the most common and mediocre of British chocolate (Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, around 26% chocolate), which is substantially better quality the Hershey’s ersatz chocolate. They didn’t know which was which but they mostly voted the inferior chocolate the best.  And British people are beginning to forget what real pork and bacon is like after years of abuse by pork that is pumped full of water and bacon that is similarly sodden with water and then ‘smoked’ by chemicals. Most British pork and bacon you can no longer fry as it ends up swimming in so much water they are effectively braised. Impregnation with water is what is probably going to happen with pork in Korea, which will rain torrents on samy-kyeop-sal (Korean pork barbecue) and kimchi and mekgeolli, in the hands of factory processes and supermarkets, will probably end up being similarly adulterated.

Take kimchi for example, the taste changes over anything up to several years and ‘maturation’ is greatly affected by temperature. Fermentation introduces random elements into food production that factory systems don’t like and it is safer for the image of brands to have products that are always mediocre, and hence reliable in their mediocrity, than ones where random elements occasionally deal both superb and inferior products. Most of our factory food, whether it be fast food burgers to almost anything in a supermarket, has been reduced to mediocrity. I remember when Indian restaurants in Britain all differed from each other. Not only was chicken served ‘on’ or ‘off the bone,’ choices you are never given today, but every restaurant cooked differently because the companies that were to supply all the ‘cook in sauces,’ standardise them and dominant the industry, had not yet been developed. Restaurants depended on the skills and creative talents of their chefs and eating out in an Indian was a culinary experience. I’ve even eaten curry garnished with melted silver leaf (varq) but again, you no longer see this creative addition. Standardization has killed the curry to the point crap factory products become the bench mark and preferred taste and in the process the chef is deskilled and becomes a ‘cook.’  Now, you can eat a korma in Newcastle or Cornwall and it will taste and look exactly the same – usually sickly yellow, sweet, and populated by uniform cubes of tasteless chicken.  Yes, it’s cooked in a restaurant but the components are produced by mass factory processes. Even the pickles are now mass-produced.

It was the variation and randomness of British Indian restaurants that made them so exciting and  it is currently the same variation that enlivens the experience of kimchi and makgeolli. Like most of the makgeolli type drinks you can now buy, and most of the packaged kimchi, the fermentation process has been terminated. Ten years ago, all makgeolli bottles had a hole on the top to allow the fermentation process to continue and so was packeted kimchi. Today, they are treated to kill the  micro-organisms which so miraculously collaborate to transform a pile of boring cabbage into kimchi and rice into makgeolli. You don’t really appreciate the explosive potential of makgeolli until you’ve brewed it and believe me, it can pack a punch far more powerful than champagne.

The allure of making your own makgeolli and kimchi, lies in the fascinating interplay, a kaleidoscope  of activity, that is produced when enzymes and environment collide and every production is a little different – and the difference continues to develop. And they are so very much alive; both kimchi and real makgeolli have a ‘zing’ that is absent when bottled or packeted. No matter how good a commercial makgeolli or kimchi is there is something they lack and quite simply, it is life. Homemade kimchi and makgeolli are full of ‘zeng’ (ie – ‘saeng,’ 생 -生), which is the Hanja (Character) for ‘life’ or ‘living.’ The moment you taste real kimchi or real makgeolli you taste life, it has a quality that with clinically dead food is only ever an approximation. Bottled makgeolli, boiled to death, is artificially resuscitated and put on a carbonated life support but despite the bubbles and facade of life, it is a zombie in comparison to makgeolli that has been allowed to retain its miraculous micro-organic population.

If you want kimchi that is always ever just, ‘just’ (그냥), well, the Chinese are making it in abundance. In my local Chinese store in the UK you can buy Kimchi made in the PRC that has not only been killed prior to packaging, but suitably embalmed in liquid chemical environment hostile to any micro-organic activity and then entombed in a can! And believe me, it tastes as bad as it sounds.

Kimchi and makgeolli are incredibly easy to make and doing so is fun. Homemade kimchi is much cheaper than the packet, supermarket variety and you can make around 8 liters of makgeolli from about 1.3 kilograms of rice (costing about 6000W – £6) which compared with shop bought makgeolli, is about half price. But more to the point, it is more about preserving taste and culture, than cost!

For more information on making makgeolli, visit Mister Makgeolli , and for information on making kimchi, visit: Kimchi Gone Fusion.

 Bathhouse Ballads chronicles many aspects of my life in South Korea. Kimchi Gone Fusion focuses on ‘the way of the pickled cabbage’ while Mister Makgeolli is dedicated to Korean rice wine.

Creative Commons License

©Bathhouse Ballads –  努江虎 – 노강호 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

Mission Makgeolli – Definitive Recipes

Posted in Food and Drink, My Recipes, rice wine (beer) by 노강호 on December 31, 2011

Makgeolli (막걸리) and the closely related dongdongju (동동주) are Korean rice wines which are fairly easy to make. Such rice based fermented alcohols are common across Asia and in the case of makgeolli and dongdongju are the first fruits of a process which if continued and elaborated upon, leads to drinks such as saki. Unlike saki, which looks like water, makgeolli and dongdongju are of a milky appearance often with rice floating in the drink and sediment which necessitates it being stirred or shaken before serving. Dongdongju, often called nongju because of its association with farmers (농), is basically the same recipe as makgeolli but with an additional step in the process. I shall henceforth use the term ‘makgeolli’ when referring to the brewing process of both drinks.

straining the wine through a muslin bag

Originally, makgeolli was a rural alcohol, a sort of home brew and until recently you could neither buy it in cans or cartons as the fermentation was ongoing. Commercial methods have now established the drink in cities where it has gained a somewhat ‘trendy’ image being combined with pulped fruit, yogurt and Chilsung Cider (Seven Up or Sprite). Some companies have also started producing a ‘well being’ variation which uses schisandra (五味子). There is now a wide range of available brands and although makgeolli is naturally ‘bubbly,’ some versions are carbonated – probably as they are boiled to kill the fermentation process and hence lose their natural ‘gassy’ quality.

On parade

Served while still fermenting, it is has the quality of an alcoholic ice cream soda, being both light and creamy, a little like medieval syllabub. The recipe below is still being adjusted but it produces a brew that my Korean friends are happy to drink and if undiluted, is quite potent. Sugar and water, or sprite can always be added to adjust the drink to your own specific preference.

Is it Beer or a Wine?

Perhaps the best method of classification is based on alcohol by volume (ABV). If the brew is in excess of 10% ABV, then it is a ‘wine’, if under 10% ABV it is closer to a beer. Under this classification commercial makgeolli, which is usually 5-7% ABV, would be a ‘beer.’ On the other hand, Japanese Saki, traditionally containing about 16% ABV, is a wine.

For more information on makgeolli click here: (pages: Mister Makgeolli).

Creative Commons License

©努江虎 – 노강호 2011  Creative Commons Licence.

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.