Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Quintessentially Korean

This is a blog post that should actually have happened months ago. This is a post we should have done the day we came here, or at the latest, the day after our first restaurant visit. This is a post about a food item so Korean, so engrained in the culture and society, it makes K-Pop and Soju look like distant relatives. There can of course only be one thing I'm talking about. It is the spicy, the delicious, the fermented, the one and only...Kimchi (김치 in Korean).

Wait...what did I say in that last sentence? Delicious? Yes. Spicy? Yes. Fermented? A fermented food item. Sounds strange, doesn't it. And it is indeed strange. But it is incredibly delicious, apparently really healthy for you, and it is eaten at every meal in Korea.

So what is this phenomal food called Kimchi? Let me break it down.

Kimchi can be made from a variety of different vegetables, but for the sake of simplicity and understanding, I will talk about the biggest and most widely eaten type of Kimchi, the variety made from nappa cabbage (배추 Baechu).

Let me point out at this point in time that this time of year in Korea is the season for Kimjang (김장),which is the event or process of making Kimchi for the coming year. Due to a considerable amount of Kimchi being made (enough for a year), it is a pretty big event, that is often spread out over the course of several days or a weekend.

I am not Korean, and don't have first hand knowledge on the Kimchi making process but I have spoken to many Koreans about it, and this is what they've told me.

The amount of cabbage used varies from family to family depending on all sorts of things, from how much Kimchi they plan on eating to how big the family is, but to give you a rough idea, one of my co-teachers made Kimchi with her mother in law, and the made 50 heads of cabbage worth. Yes.50.

So the cabbage is rubbed down with a very course pickling salt, and left to sit for a while, so as to draw out some of the moisture. Once it has sat long enough, the cabbage is then rinsed under fresh water, to get rid of all the excess salt. After that (it might even be before that) the cabbage is then smeared full of a tasty, spicy, salty red pepper paste that has been specially made for the Kimchi.

The paste is made of several ingredients, the main ones being garlic, fish paste or fish sauce, sticky rice paste and Gochugaru (고추가루), which is a powder made from ground up red peppers (chillies).

The layers of cabbage with the tasty red paste

After the cabbage has been smothered inside and out with this spicy paste, it is then put into jars or tupperwares and put away for storage. The modern method of storing is not half as exciting as the old method, because nowadays, it is simply stored in a Kimchi fridge. Most families that have the space will have one of these, a fridge made especially to store Kimchi for the coming months. Whoohoo...excitement.

The old method is a little more involved and makes for a much greater story.

Back in the day (how far back I cannot tell you) after this whole process was done and dusted, Koreans needed a place to store their Kimchi. Outside was too cold, and the Kimchi would freeze, and inside might have been just that little bit too warm. What would happen is that the finished product would be placed in a kimchi pot and then buried to protect it from the harsh cold experienced during the Korean winter. If any was needed, it could be dug up. The pots are generally quite large, so burying one of these would have been no mean feat. There are of course still some families that try and stick to the traditional way of doing things, and they still use the pot method.

This is what the Kimchi pots look like

Whether it's being stored in pots or in a fridge, the months of storage after making allow the Kimchi to ferment and only increase in flavour and awesomeness!

This is known as a 'kimjang' bag. It is a very large (100x70cm) bag, into which the Kimchi is placed before being put into the pots for storage

Kimchi dates back pretty far; as early as about 3000 years ago, but I'm not going to go into the whole history of this Korean speciality. It is incredibly delicious, served everywhere and is also really good for your health.

As mentioned, Kimchi is eaten at almost every single meal, and I'd almost be willing to put money on (almost) that in all of our 'table covered in food' photos, there is Kimchi to be seen. It is a side dish that accompanies almost all food items. It is also often used to make its own dishes like stews or rice dishes.

All in all it is an incredible delicious food item that has an interesting and tedious making process, is eaten all over the country and is as ingrained in the culture and lifestyle here as bagpipes are to the Scots or cheese to the Swiss.

I for one know that I will most definitely miss this tasty morsel once my stint in Korea is over.

Post by Oliver


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