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Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Why Kimchi Is Good for the Soul

I never gave much thought to kimchi before I moved to Korea. Just miles from my house, there were loads of Korean restaurants and Asian supermarkets where, unbeknownst to me, thousands of foodies (did they exist in the 90's?) and Korean expats must have been getting their fix. Personally, though, if it couldn't be cooked in the microwave or toaster oven, I just wasn't interested.

How strange then that, now, I see so many fantastic things about kimchi, and almost, if resentfully, have to nod my head when Koreans say that it just might be the perfect food. First of all, it's just great to eat. Spicy like salsa, crisp like an apple, sour like movie theater candy - no matter what you're eating, something about kimchi will compliment it. Second, it's versatile. Eat it raw, eat it stir-fried, drop it in a stew, make pancakes out of it, slap it on your burger or pizza. Third, it's healthy. Made (in its most basic incarnation) with cabbage, salt, red pepper paste or flakes, and a bit of shrimp or anchovies, it's got nutrients a-plenty and calories a-few. The fermentation process loads it up with all sorts of little bacteria that provide your body with nutrients that you might not get in a diet of exclusively raw, cooked, or processed foods. Fourth, it lasts. Whether you make it yourself or buy it elsewhere, you can keep it refrigerated for up six months in an air-tight container. It may grow sour, but it would require some serious neglect for it to grow inedible. Fifth - and this is a somewhat subtler point - cabbage can live in the ground long into the winter, even surviving when the temperatures drop below freezing, which means that it thrives long after sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and carrots have given up the ghost. Over the centuries, during the months of December, January, February, and even March, when there wasn't really a lot of stuff to harvest, cabbage and Kimchi probably saved a great number of Koreans from starvation. Now, we're more likely to think in terms of food independence, but either way, it's unarguably a good thing to have some grub growing nearby.

So, what would a Korean food tour be without some time spent immersing oneself in cabbagey glory? As I detailed in my last post, Lee Hee-cheon of White Crane Farm was kind enough to let us swipe a few of his cabbages (even though technically they were just babies whose time hadn't quite come), which we then took down to the restaurant run by his wife, Park Yang-yoon. Mrs. Park is a fantastic cook: as interested in her husband in providing clean, safe, healthy food, but probably a bit more talented when it comes to making it scrumptious.

Thanks to a giant bibimbap spread earlier in the afternoon and some raw carrots and garlic just before at the farm, we Happy Bears needed to work up a bit of an appetite before we could begin chowing down. So, Mrs. Park set us up with a table outside the restaurant and gave us a crash course in making kimchi. The photo record is somewhat incomplete, since all of us were busy washing and chopping and slathering, but here's the gist:

1) Chop the butt off of the cabbage and remove the outer leaves, which were the most exposed to dirt and bugs. These leaves can be cooked and eaten in sides and stews, but apparently don't make great kimchi.

2) Then cut the whole head in half along the vertical axis. Make another cut like you're going to quarter it, still along the vertical axis, but stop about 2/3 of the way down. This allows you to open up the cabbage for the next step, without completely disassembling it.

Andy and Anina work on Step 1 while me, Greg, and Tanya work on 2.

3) Rinse the not-quite-quartered heads thoroughly, then rub salt on each and every leaf. This kills bacteria and opens up the pores, allowing the spices to soak in later.

Andy's a'washin', Tanya's a'saltin'

4) Stack all the wet, salted cabbage halves and then apply pressure by leaving a heavy rock or pot on top of them. I guess it takes some time for the salt to do its work.

5) Prepare the sauce. Normally, red pepper paste, ginger, garlic, shrimp, and anchovies, but we also chopped up some other veggies for extra goodness.

Knife skill contest time.

6) Don your plastic gloves, let you burn off your fingers. Lie the cabbage on its back (with the outermost leave touching the plate) and lift up all but the last leaf. Rub some sauce on it, and also on the back of the leaf above it. Let the next one down and repeat, making sure to slather a bit of spice on the front and back of every leaf.

This stuff was still in the ground, alive and growing, less than 2 hours beforehand!

7) It's ready to eat! Or, you can wait a few days/weeks/months.

As if the act of eating weren't reward enough, there's one more thing I'd like to point out about kimchi. The actual process of making it was also a blast! I knew two of my team members going into the project, but I had never even exchanged emails with the other two, let alone met them. We were all friendly, but, personally, I didn't quite know what to talk to them about while we were listening to the farmer and chopping our own cabbage heads off. But, when we joined together to make Kimchi, we really hit it off. All being involved in learning something together and, even more, sharing knowledge and hints and tips while working towards a common goal, gave us a comfortable atmosphere in which to get to know one another. When you're on opposite sides of the table preparing kimchi with someone, there's no need to ask awkward questions and try to figure out what you've got in common. You're already there, together, doing the same thing. It's all right in front of your eyes. The bond is more instant, and more tangible, than any "me too." It's much easier to come together over production than consumption.

I'm sure everyone else has good, if not quite this exotic or preposterous, memories of this sort. Cooking with parents in the kitchen, with the extended family over the holidays, with roomies in college, or out at some backyard barbeque. Whatever the specifics, just hanging around food with other people is one of the simplest and most satisfying pleasure life affords us. This is also one of the pleasures that we risk losing as we outsource our cooking to restaurants and corporations, leaving independence, tradition, and solidarity by the wayside. I feel lucky to have had the chance to realize this. And also to eat (some of) the following:

Tofu, fresh kimchi, and steamed pork

From 12 o'clock, going clockwise: candied lotus roots, cucumber pickled in soy sauce, radish leaf kimchi (I believe), old/sour cabbage kimchi, sauerkraut (first I'd ever seen in Korea), fern bracken with perilla dressing, and, in the middle, pickeld garlic.

Time to eat!

Translator, foodie, foodie, chef, farmer, foodie, foodie, foodie