IN A PICKLE

Korea’s national dish is well pre­served and has se­ri­ous stay­ing power, writes Margie T Log­a­rta

Business Traveller (Asia-Pacific) - - SPECIAL REPORTS -

Margie T Log­a­rta in­ves­ti­gates the many faces of Korea’s favourite tasty treat

Itasted kim­chi for the first time in Manila. It was forced on me by a friend, Kathy, whose Korean mother had started a small busi­ness in the mid-1970s, spe­cial­is­ing in the home-made fer­mented cab­bage del­i­cacy. Frus­trated that none of the lo­cal supermarkets car­ried the stuff, Kathy’s mum de­cided to whip up her own kim­chi, and a suc­cess­ful kitchen en­ter­prise was born.

It was love at first crunch – the brac­ing, tangy pickle roused my taste buds and ap­petite to such a de­gree I con­sumed – with lash­ings of Coca-Cola – prac­ti­cally the en­tire contents of the medium-sized Tup­per­ware that Kathy had brought. Un­til to­day, there is al­ways a full jar or bulging packet of kim­chi nes­tled in my re­frig­er­a­tor, and when I go for Korean cui­sine, which is at least once a month, I in­vari­ably ask for sec­onds of the all-too-small saucer of kim­chi that ac­com­pa­nies a set meal.

If you thought I was ob­sessed, I’m just tak­ing my cue from the Korean peo­ple. For them, kim­chi is not only their national dish, it’s also been the ob­ject of of­fi­cial pol­icy and sci­en­tific study. Did you know that one of the govern­ment’s goals is to ad­vo­cate the “glob­al­i­sa­tion” of kim­chi, that there are in­sti­tu­tions solely ded­i­cated to pro­mot­ing the pick­ling process, such as the Kim­chi Field Mu­seum at the COEX Mall and the Food & Cul­ture Acad­emy in down­town Seoul?

And did you ex­pect the first Korean, Yi So-yeon, who blasted off in a Rus­sian Soyuz space­craft in 2008, to last a week in the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion with­out his com­fort food? For­tu­nately for the high-fly­ing sci­en­tist, the Korea Atomic Re­search In­sti­tute had been run­ning long-term ex­per­i­ments to de­velop space-friendly kim­chi and other tra­di­tional treats such as

ramyeon and fer­mented bean soup. De­spite the pro­ject’s great cost, the sci­en­tists had to erad­i­cate bac­te­ria from the kim­chi lest cos­mic rays mu­tate it into some­thing harm­ful. Just like a schoolkid go­ing off with lunch made by mum, Yi was in­deed well for­ti­fied.

Var­i­ous the­o­ries about the ori­gins of kim­chi abound, all of them highly plau­si­ble. Daniel Gray, food ex­pert, author and part­ner in O’ngo Food Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, be­lieves it sur­faced dur­ing the Shilla Dy­nasty (57 BC-935 AD) and caught on since Bud­dhism, which was the preva­lent re­li­gion, pro­moted a veg­e­tar­ian life­style. He adds: “Rice has al­ways fig­ured promi­nently on the ta­ble, and a long time ago since Kore­ans didn’t have a lot of food, the main dish was rice. But to eat only rice was con­sid­ered not healthy or bal­anced, and they ac­com­pa­nied it with tiny dishes of kim­chi, some other veg­eta­bles and fer­mented fish.”

The spicy cab­bage kim­chi – ar­guably the most fa­mil­iar to for­eign vis­i­tors of the 200 known types – came about when the Por­tuguese mis­sion­ar­ies ar­rived in the 1700s, car­ry­ing chilli pep­pers with them. “There are re­ally a lot of va­ri­eties of kim­chi,” ex­plains Gray, whose com­pany aims to use Korean cui­sine as a win­dow into lo­cal cus­toms and tra­di­tions. “Kim­chi is ac­tu­ally the process of fer­ment­ing veg­eta­bles, and mak­ing them last. There are re­gional dif­fer­ences, and ev­ery­one has their own recipe.

“One can al­ways be creative in mak­ing it.”

We have learned that dur­ing the late Cho­sun era (1392-1897), pow­dered chilli with chotkal (fish or shell­fish paste) was all the rage. Nowa­days, in warmer parts of the coun­try, chotkal and chilli pow­der are used more lib­er­ally to pre­vent the con­coc­tion from go­ing bad; in the colder ar­eas, less salt is used. Since re­frig­er­a­tors did not ex­ist in times past, pick­ling was the an­cients’ way of ex­tend­ing the life of their food­stuff; they made kim­chi at the start of win­ter and stored it in tra­di­tional brown ce­ramic pots deep in the ground. That way, they en­sured their nat­u­ral pantry yielded what they needed to sur­vive dur­ing the coun­try’s bit­ter­est sea­son.

Kim­chi is held in such high re­gard that the first bond­ing ex­pe­ri­ence Korean mothers usu­ally go through with new daugh­ters-in-law is teach­ing them to pre­pare kim­chi the way the son-hus­band grew up ap­pre­ci­at­ing it. And with time it has evolved with in­no­va­tive and ex­cit­ing new flavours.

Gray re­ports that in­gre­di­ents added lately to the mix­ing pot in­clude toma­toes, ap­ples, pear and even oc­to­pus!

Sadly, the hec­tic life­style of Kore­ans has taken its toll on home­made kim­chi, lead­ing to the in­crease

in su­per­mar­ket-bought ver­sions. But to un­trained palates (like mine), com­mer­cial kim­chi can be quite de­li­cious and make for ex­cel­lent sou­venirs. Pop­u­lar brands are Jong­gat jip Kim­chi and Han Bok-seon Gungjung Kim­chi.

Off­set­ting this trend, how­ever, is ar­tise­nal kim­chi such as the Su­pex Kim­chi of Sher­a­ton Grande Walk­er­hill Ho­tel. De­signed by the ho­tel’s Chef Lee Sun Hee, Su­pex stands for “Su­per Ex­cel­lent” – the core value of the SK Group, owner of the moun­tain re­sort and Korea’s third largest chae­bol (con­glom­er­ate). Through an in­ter­preter, Chef Lee ex­plains that a host of fac­tors go into the mak­ing of their prod­uct. This in­cludes re­search­ing the best cli­matic con­di­tions around the coun­try to cul­ti­vate the cab­bage, a main in­gre­di­ent of kim­chi.“We al­ways keep in touch with the lo­cal sup­pli­ers and keep an eye on them to source qual­ity in­gre­di­ents for Su­pex Kim­chi, which are 100 per cent lo­cally grown.

“The most im­por­tant part of the kim­chi-mak­ing process is mar­i­nat­ing the white cab­bage. We do this at 10 de­grees cel­sius in a spe­cial room to pre­vent the con­di­tion of the cab­bage from be­ing af­fected by ex­ter­nal tem­per­a­ture or any other dis­tur­bances. Our kim­chi has turned out to be crispy and re­fresh­ing.” Su­pex Kim­chi can only be pur­chased at the ho­tel, and will soon be dis­trib­uted in Tokyo.

Of the 200 known types of kim­chi, Chef Lee claims to have learned to pre­pare 80, and is cur­rently deep in study­ing tra­di­tional fer­mented sauces such as gochu­jang (chilli paste), gan­jang (soy sauce) and de­on­jang (yel­low bean paste). Kim­chi also pro­vides the spring­board for other del­i­ca­cies, she adds, such as kim­chi cold noo­dle, kim­chi pan­cake, kim­chi dumpling, kim­chi and bean soup, kim­chi soup, and steamed kim­chi, among oth­ers.

Chef Lee, who still lives with her mother, ad­mits that it’s her mum’s trea­sured recipe that rules, not her Su­pex for­mula. Ap­par­ently – and thank­fully – some tra­di­tions are not about to go away just yet.

Clock­wise from op­po­site page: Baechu kim­chi; chong­gak kim­chi; Chef Lee Sun Hee of the Sher­a­ton Grande Walk­er­hill Ho­tel; the pack­ag­ing of her cov­eted “Su­pex” kim­chi; and kkak­dugi kim­chi

Clock­wise from top left: A typ­i­cal kim­chi as­sort­ment; nabak kim­chi; “Su­pex” kim­chi in pack­ages; oisobagi kim­chi and kkak­dugi kim­chi

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