Living in a different country for a year has lots of obvious benefits: abundant travel opportunities, a daily sense of adventure and an excuse for excessive shopping. But it’s the less obvious, seemingly insignificant details that have stuck with me in post-Korea life, and seem to pop up in my daily routines and conversations. Casually explaining the story behind a ceramic incense burner, or referencing Yeoju’s famous sweet potatoes. I like to think about how Korea is now relevant in my life, and how Korean culture permeates my daily routine or conversations with friends and family. It’s also cool to see what is interesting to different people about Korea; while some ask about my students and life as an ESL teacher, others inquire about the meaning of Gangnam style and why the hell it was so popular. But I have to say, the cultural asset that has most successfully weaseled its way into my life in America has been Korean cuisine. It’s delicious, healthy and more readily available in the United States than I ever realized. Now that I’m finally living in my own space again, with a beautiful kitchen and an abundance of top-notch cooking supplies thanks to my three culinarily-inclined roommates, I figured it was time to take a stab at Korean cooking. Obviously, I started with kimchi!
Kimchi is the staple food of the Korean diet. There really doesn’t seem to be an American equivalent; we are a country of immigrants, with a wide variety of culinary habits and influences. Korea has been inhabited by the same ethnic group for thousands of years, and remains the most homogenous country in the world. They’ve been eating this stuff for centuries.
What is Kimchi?
Vegetables – typically napa cabbage, radish, scallions or cucumbers – are fermented anywhere from 24 hours to months at a time, soaking up spices, fish oils and hundreds of other possible ingredients. Kimchi is filled with probiotics and nutrients, and Koreans boast that it prevents cancer. To me, it’s the perfect compliment to any meal (although I did have to get used to eating it for breakfast), adding a major flavor zing to just about anything. It’s sour, spicy and savory, and I’ll admit that I didn’t initially take a liking to it. But after a few months in Korea, a meal without kimchi felt like it was missing something. Koreans eat kimchi with breakfast, lunch and dinner as a side dish, and also use it as a main ingredient in stews, rice pancakes, dumplings and other many other dishes. People say that those who eat kimchi regularly have a certain smell. So…uh…let me know if I start to smell, please.
When I was in Korea, I desperately wanted to learn how to make it, but lived in a tiny studio apartment with only basic kitchen supplies. I asked co-workers and Korean friends if they would teach me, who usually laughed and walked away. I later figured out that no one makes his or her own, they all get massive amounts every winter from their mothers and don’t know the first thing about making it. Sigh.
Now that I’m back in America, with my own space, a longing for that sour/spicy goodness and roommates willing to taste anything, I decided it was time to reintroduce kimchi into my diet and conduct a science experiment (aka, make kimchi).
The process was pretty crazy. I spent about 3 hours reading dozens of online recipes and consulting with my Korean American friend Nana (and her mother) about the process. There are literally hundreds of variations, such as the type of seafood with which you ferment, or if you even use fish at all (Nana does not, but I used oysters, some use shrimp or squid). The amount of each spice, whether to use sugar or not – I found one recipe that used pears and apples as a natural sugar, which I loved – and even different opinions on how to soak the cabbage before mixing it with the spice and paste. Like anything food-related, everyone has a different taste and preference.
But the basic process of kimchi making goes like this:
1. Soaking cabbage in saltwater for about 2 hours, so it is soft and malleable
2. Making a rice-flour based dough to thicken the fermenting paste
3. Mixing the rice dough with the spices, flavorings and oils, includin: ginger, chili powder, crushed red pepper, chili pepper, fish oil, green onions, garlic, oysters, apple and pear
4. Combining the paste with the soaked cabbage, mixing it up, rubbing it in
5. Fermentation! I let it sit for a week. Then keep it in the fridge.
6. Consume. Currently I am eating a bowl of white rice with some kimchi mixed in. I’ve also mixed it with eggs, chicken, noodles and other veggies.
I’m still working on the final step: having a Korean person taste it.
Shout out to Rachael Smith for the camera loan!