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Monday, December 27, 2010

I can't believe how little I've posted about Kimchi: THEORY

First, a poem.

"Bacterial Mayhem in the Land of Morning Calm."

Banch'an means side dish.
In Korea there are many.
But more than the others,
Kimchi has famey.

Kimchi is Korea's
National Dish.
You make it with cabbage,
spices, and fish.

There are special fridges
For Kimchi alone.
What other pickle
has its own realm?

Kimchi is spicy,
slimy, juicy and crisp.
Eat it with ricy,
veg sticks, and soybean dip.

Kimchi is patient:
Waits months or years to be eaten.
It doesn't discriminate.
A food for all seasons!

Loads of bacteria
Thrive on the surface.
Unlike the moon,
More like the Earth-us.

It unites us
through the kimjang process.
Those unmoved
must surely be heartless.

Kimchi is nice.
Unless it's too sour.
Eat some every day.
Be good to your bowels.

I could probably go on more or less endlessly and inanely, but I'll stop.* Why? To tell you about the weekend Suze and Beth and I spent doing kimjang (making Kimchi) with the same elder brother and sister who hosted me for my first WWOOFing experience and gave me a load of figs and a thigh massage last fall.

I've been wanting to try making Kimchi for a long time, actually. One of the main reasons I decided to start eating vegetarian was because I wanted to be the sort of person who thinks about his food even more than he thinks about his trash. As far back as I can remember, I was always into reducing waste and recycling and the like; eventually, I learned that it was possible to expand my range of concern and that, if you look for the connections, eating is every bit as much a moral act and a statement of priorities as buying and disposing are. Perhaps even more so, if you agree that eating is a more fundamental activity than commerce.

Other than rice, there's probably no food I've eaten more frequently than Kimchi over the last four years. Actually, scratch that. Kimchi is king. Nearly every meal here has Kimchi, even if you're out for spaghetti or curry. Thus, there's no food in my diet more worth understanding. If I want to know about the ingredients, the time, the processes, and the labor that I'm treating myself to every time I sit down to dine, Kimchi is probably the place to start.

Kimchi comes in several varieties. When my parents and I stumbled upon the Kimchi museum in Seoul, we found that there's hardly any vegetable that wasn't used for Kimchi at some time in the past. I already knew about cabbage, sesame leaf, radish, cucumber, and chive Kimchi, but they even made it with eggplants and carrots and other plants whose names I don't know.

How can all of these dishes share one name? Because Kimchi is an ambiguous term, kind of like "pickle." It's the name of a process, but there's also a standard-bearer that usurps the term in popular usage. There are other variations, too, based not on the vegetable in question but on the spices and age. Soups and stirfries should be made with sin-(pronounced "sheen") Kimchi, which is old and sour. In the summer, there's water kimchi, which Koreans will no doubt tell you is extremely refreshing. For the spice-intolerant, there's white kimchi, which is either pickled without red pepper or rinsed free of it before being eaten.

I always wondered why people bothered making pickles. I found them nasty and stinky and figured, why not just eat a cucumber? I think I always sort of took it for granted that food was easy to come by, that it was normal for food to come in packages and be stored in fridges, that there was nothing odd about long lists of odd ingredients with undisclosed functions. This misapprehension may have something to do with the fact that I spent my school months in suburban Virginia, with no significant connection to agriculture, and my summers in California, where the fields were always full of lettuce and broccoli and my friends' back yard seemed to always have more apples, apricots, peaches, plums, strawberries, and boysenberries than we knew what to do with. I suppose I never really spent a full year in any one place**; how could I have known what would become of the fields when I went back to school in September?

However, I don't think it's right to blame that misapprehension primarily on the individual circumstances of my upbringing, because most Americans (and most Koreans, too) think about food in much the same way. We consider it a right to eat what we want, when we want, with minimal effort; or, at the very least, if we don't consider it a right, we don't think there's anything wrong with it, either. This mindset is encouraged, if not directly created, by the processed food industry, which makes money by taking advantage of economies of scale and doing all the work for us. Unfortunately, this also means it's doing most of our thinking for us.

This is why, until I was 25 or so, I never really gave serious consideration to the fact that the food we eat is all alive, or at least is a part part of a living being, until we pluck it. Just like the flowers in our gardens (assuming we don't outsource the knowledge and labor that goes into raising them, too), these plants live in cycles, bear fruits at certain times, and then die or hibernate for the winter. This process is largely obscured by the presence of refrigerators and Lunchables (TM), but in the days of yore, people had no choice but to acknowledge and deal with it.

Figs come off the tree in October here. If you like figs, October is a great month. Of course, August sucks because all you can do is sit and wait and watch them grow and think of ways to outsmart the birds this season. (Actually, August doesn't suck, because Watermelons are ready then, but that's another story). In November, you may have some stragglers, and in early December, some runts. You're done long before Christmas. No fresh figs in your stockings. Anything that you picked but didn't eat has rotted away. Anything that you left on the tree (why'd you do that?) has shrivelled up and dried out. Unless you had the foresight to make jam. Have you ever thought about jam as an innovation? I don't know when it was - it may have been this very moment - when I realized that jam wasn't just made by Smuckers to keep my Skippy and Wonderbread from getting lonely. Jam is a technology. It extends the life of fruit so that we can enjoy sweetness long after the sweet things have all died. Jam is functional and adaptive and clever. It's also contextual and cyclical. There was a time when there was a time in human life for jam, when opening a jar of it meant something other than "I think I'll have a PBJ." Our grandparents all remember those days, and maybe some of our parents do, but I think most of us just have a very faint, factual sort of knowledge that such a situation once existed.***

That was a long way of saying that Kimchi is essentially cabbage jam. Except, since cabbage is all stringy and crisp and has no sugars, it can't be made into jam. It has to be preserved in some other way, so that people have something to chow down on even when there's not a single leaf or fruit or sprout to be seen. Maybe you knew that already. Two years ago, I probably thought I knew it. But I think I know it differently now.

Next time, the promised process.

*Actually, I just put two more stanzas in the middle. Sorry.

**Come to think of it, maybe I still haven't.

***I think functional ignorance of these sort of basic details about our relationships, not just to food, but to everything we use and consume, is the fundamental reason why the environment is screwed and the third world is a mess and the second world is a mess and the first world is a mess and so many of us, even the rich ones, are dissatisfied.****

**** This should probably not be a footnote. I beg you to read Derreck Jensen's Endgame.

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