Ask any Korean what they think is the second-most important food in Korea and you might receive a long and sundry list of consumable possibilities: some might claim 불고기(bulgogi is beef grilled in soy sauce), others 비빔밥 (bibimbap is rice and end mixed with cooked vegetables), while you might hear a few Koreans advocate for 듼장찌(dwenjangjjigae is a bean paste pot stew), and still a small minority might favor 갈 as the strongest candidate for this conciliatory distinction (galbi is grilled beef ribs).
Ask any Korean what they think is the most important food in their country and their response will always roll off their tongues in a predictable, almost mechanical manner: 김치(kimchi).
Kimchi comes in all forms, shapes and colors, so this entry will be primarily focused on the most common form of kimchi, 배추김 (baechu kimchi).
According to a reputable source*, the first step in making baechu kimchi relies upon selecting the freshest cabbage. This cabbage is then salted and placed in an air-tight container for between 6 hours (summer) to 18 hours (winter). After sitting, the kimchi is then washed thoroughly three or more times in water. The 'essential' ingredients are then added once the cabbage is clean; 'essential' ingredients always include red pepper, fish or anchovy paste, rice powder, green onion, ginger, and Korean garlic. (Keep in mind that other ingredients used, processes, and varieties of kimchi are as diverse as the Korean cuisine itself.) The final step in this potent concoction is once again placing the kimchi in a refrigerated container for a period of two to three days or more to ferment prior to consumption.
Kimchi is literally a part of every Korean meal. I can honestly profess that I have not gone one sitting without enjoying kimchi in one form or another with the exception of the occasional Western-style breakfast. Kimchi is almost always used as a 반찬 (banchan is a traditional side dish served with meals that I will describe in painstaking detail in entries to come), and it is also commonly utilized as an essential component of other traditional Korean dishes (kimchichigge, kimbab, also to be described in future episodes.)
Although ubiquitous at every meal, no two kimchis are ever created equal. The vibrant color of kimchi ranges between an arrabiatta orange to a scarlet red, and kimchi's texture is similar to the crunch offered by other pickled leafy greens. The taste of the kimchi can also range greatly, from bland and processed to ripe and pungent, from wincingly fishy to sea-free, from clearing-the-sinuses spicy to milquetoast piquant.
Unfortunately, the smell of this of this national favorite is woefully unappetizing. Many Korean apartments even contain two refrigerators in an attempt to combat its unwanted odor: one refrigerator for kimchi, and one for everything else. If you want your residence to wreak of rotting vegetables, have your kimchi and other refrigeratables share real estate; if making your house smell like Fresh Kills isn't your cup of tea, segregate, segregate, segregate.
All lightheartedness aside, kimchi itself is just as much an edible representation of Korean sociocultural history as it is a staple of the Korean diet. Pickled vegetables such as kimchi have been (according to the same reputable source mentioned above) since time immemorial part of the food tradition of the peninsula due to the harsh winters making it impossible for peasant sustenance farmers to produce and later consume vegetables of any kind during the coldest months. Kimchi production in its current form (reputable source again!) could not take place until the 16th or 17th century when trade with China provided Korea the chili peppers it needed to develop the most popular kinds of kimchi that exist today. Kimchi also contains powder from rice and a paste made from fish, representing both a ready carbohydrate coupled with a consistent source of protein, as well as two staples of Korean consumption and trade that can be traced back thousands of years. In this respect, kimchi represents Korean ingenuity despite scarcity, the Korean people always attempting to make the best with limited, sometimes non-existent resources. The sour and salty flavor brought out by the pickling reminds the consumer of a painful history that binds, the trying, often desperate moments in modern Korean history such as civil war and periods of Japanese occupation.
Probably the most notable aspect of this kimchi regards the ritual with which Koreans consume this unlikely national dish. Kimchi, just like a family member, is present at every meal, in the home or at a restaurant, and there is always more than enough to share. Also, kimchi, especially to a foreigner such as myself, has no empirically ‘special’ value. It looks like pickled cabbage in red paste-like sauce, and it tastes predictably so. An outsider can only wonder why it is ALWAYS around. But this judgmental attitude neglects the context within which kimchi is the national food of Korea. It is certainly not the best tasting of Korean fare- in fact, it is not even close. But there must be many reasons why Koreans consume it as they do, and although I discovered a few of the surface reasons for why kimchi is the national dish of Korea, only more interactions with kimchi and the Koreans who love it so will allow me to better understand the Korean devotion towards their perception of pickled perfection.
*When I reference a 'reputable source', it will never be a textbook, wikipedia entry, or cookbook. 'Reputable sources' will always be Koreans who love their national cuisine, and, as the author of this blog, I will pay minimal regard to whether or not my sources contain limited or extensive knowledge on the nitty-gritty aspects within the Korean kitchen or market. They will most likely never be experts, nor would I want them to be. This blog is a forum to discuss my personal experiences with my Korean friends and family within the context of fascinating food culture that they have their created, participate in, and continue nourish with or without expertise about the technical details of our experiences.