Elwood 5566


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.


The Sounds of Silence – Noisy Eating

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Comparative by 노강호 on July 8, 2010

Slurp slurp, smack, smack...

I was watching the kids in my school eating around a table. The usual format presided with bouts of animated talking and then silence. Koreans talk much less than westerners during a meal as it suggests enjoyment but  the silent periods are never really silent because another means of expressing pleasure with food is to produce little noises of contentment as you eat. I was reminded of a friend back home who cringes whenever I eat toast in his presence. Eating toast silently is impossible, unless you’re into that Americanism of dipping it into your coffee the same way we British dunk their biscuits. Even with the moistest mouth, or lavishly lagged in rich butter,  toast crunches and it so happens such noises seriously disturb my friend, so much so that I can only ever eat it comfortably when he’s in another room.

Toast and butter

I love butter and in England melt a fat wadge of it into mashed potatoes, along with some milk and occasionally a raw egg, and always melt a knob or two on carrots, brussel sprouts or peas. I’ve lost a considerable amount of weight in Korea as milk, bread and butter, basically diary products,  no longer form a staple part of my diet. At one time all three kick started my day along with oil, bacon and egg and there were probably as many calories in my English breakfast as there are in my current, daily Korean menu. My weekly shopping in England included a pack of butter, a pint of milk a day, a large loaf and about 1 litre  of oil a month. And then there was the meat! Nothing less than two big pork chops for dinner, or a large piece of chicken. I rarely fry any food so oil, only ever sesame, is reduced to about  a litre a year. My consumption of meat, without any exaggeration is at least 5 times lower than it was back home while my consumption of vegetables is significantly up. Currently, I will eat an entire large carrier bag of spinach a week and one enormous water melon; the water melon alone takes more calories to carry to my apartment than will be contained within it. Most surprisingly of all is that my consumption of rice, the staple food in Korea, is much lower than when I lived in England. A portion of rice in Korea is not much more than a handful, the amount contained within one of those small stainless steel dishes. Whenever I’m served rice back home the amount can be as much as 4 times greater than this and the quality is poor. For most of my life rice has simply been rice with a few major divergences: pudding rice and sushi rice being the most obvious. But when you live on good quality rice for a few years you really notice how tasteless ‘British’ rice is. Even the upmarket brands are bland but in fairness Koreans probably see a potato as a potato and for most Koreans the epitome of french fries are the shit served by Macdonald’s. Jersey new  potatoes with a sprig of mint and coated in creamy butter! Now there’s an orgasm!

Pass the tissues!

Shopping in a Korean supermarket, even the big ones like Home Plus (Tesco) or E-Marte is boring and totally functional. There are few microwave meals, no meat pies, few jars or cans of cook-in sauces padded out with soya and corn by-products, little but fish, fruit and spam existing in cans, an absence of almost anything but yogurt and ice cream in the form of deserts and frozen goodies are limited. Only in Korea can I go shopping for an item and leave the premises only having bought that item. In the UK, if you enter a supermarket the chances are you will leave with far more than you originally planned to buy. Of course, there are ample goodies in a Korean supermarket, probably of more appeal if you are Korean, but as a westerner with a penchant for pastry, dairy and meat products, the choices are limited.


My greatest weakness is butter and by that I mean real butter and not that fake crap verging on margarine that for over a decade we were hoodwinked into believing was healthy until it transpired the trans-fatty acids they contained were just as bad for you as real creamy fat. Thankfully, Like Korean cheese,  Korean butter, if you can get hold of it, is generally shite. I was at a buffet restaurant a year ago and tucked in a corner was a toaster and butter; indeed two types of butter, herb and garlic. I almost wet myself I was so excited. There I was, surrounded by barbecued meats, smoked duck, smoked salmon, fried rice and even fried chicken, and the first thing I go for is some toast and butter. The butter was rather pale, not deep yellow like Irish butter tends to be but more like French butter but this is no bad sign as pale butter can be extremely creamy. You can imagine my disappointment when after attaching a fat slice of butter to my hot toast, I discover its ‘well being shit’, butter made with water or some fat-free substitute that turned the toast to exactly the same consistency you get dunking it in coffee and which is ideal for the elderly and those whose mouths are predominantly gum. It made no toast crunching sound and disgusted, I discarded it next to the toaster and headed straight for some fried chicken.

I'm looking for the cream!

Korean stainless steel rice bowl - fits in your palm!

In the last three years I have eaten one pack of butter! Imagine my glee when I discovered a pack of Danish Lurpak butter in the cooler cabinet at my local E-Marte! It was expensive, 6000 Won (£3) but I was in need of a little comfort and reminiscing and after putting it in my basket bought a  loaf of bread. I’d been given a toaster by a friend in Ch’eonan and 18 months later, it still lay packed in a box in a corner of my veranda. Lurpak is almost white in colour and is unsalted but is deliciously creamy. The pack was consumed within 36 hours, a frightfully naughty luxury and I haven’t bought one since and the toaster, boxed up, has gone back to the veranda.

Cabbage and rice cake spicy stew - korean kids favoutire

Sat at the table with my students, who have just made spicy cabbage stew (떡볶이), I suddenly become aware of their noisy eating, a symphony of sucking, smacking, slurping, sighing,  clicking,  and chewing. When I first arrived in Korea, I didn’t particularly enjoy eating with Koreans because they tend to make the eating noises you hear in documentaries where some micro camera is inserted deep into a nest of ants or termites  and the sounds subsequently amplified. When eating with gusto, Koreans parade  the entire gamut  of possible eating noises some of which are so juicy and over excited, they are almost sexual. Ten years ago I hated those noises in the same way my friend hated the unavoidable sound of munching toast. Sitting there watching their happy faces as they sigh loudly, because they’ve eaten too much, or fanning their mouths because they’ve  deliberately made the stew too spicy, I realise I now find their noises both consoling and cute. I spent years scolding my nephew  because he tends to eat in a manner somewhere between a salamander and an insect. Maybe it’s time to cut him some slack!

Creative Commons License
© Nick Elwood 2010 Creative Commons Licence.