At the heart of Korean culture is the beloved golden child of our cuisine: kimchi.
Recent news of kimchi’s ten million dollar export deal had a higher media value than news of any ten billion dollar steel export deal. Although kimchi may seem well-known now, real kimchi is still yet to be discovered abroad. The kimchi situation is similar to how so-called Italian carbonara pasta in the US or Japan may come served smothered in cream sauce (I felt it was more of a soup than a pasta sauce there). A dining reporter at The New York Times once filmed the process of making kimchi and posted it on their website. It was amusing to watch— I couldn’t help but smile as they put in anchovies instead of fish sauce. It was almost endearing! Oh, the finished product did look like kimchi. It even looked good. I was almost fooled until she said, “Put it in the refrigerator first.” She put the kimchi in a pretty pickle jar and topped it off with “…and it will be ready to eat tomorrow.”
That reporter must’ve forgotten that kimchi ferments. Fresh radish kimchi is hard to eat. Unripe radish is hard, and even has a whiff of grass. Obviously, once it ripens, it tastes like heaven.
I once heard an anecdote from a Korean student who had studied abroad in Japan. Heavy with a hankering for kimchi, he visited numerous supermarkets. Kimchi often went on sale under the assumption it would soon rot. However, to him, the marked down kimchi tasted particularly good. For the Japanese, there is no concept of “ripening” kimchi. Although they seem quite similar, “ripening” and “rotting” are worlds apart. For Koreans, there is no expiration date when it comes to kimchi (unfortunately, this is not the case when it comes to store-brought kimchi). The expiration date is reserved for the mother who makes them. Korean mothers have over 100 ways to deal with kimchi that has passed its fermentation peak. Grandmothers, on the other hand, have about 500 methods under their belt.
On the average dining table in the Jeolla province, if there are about 10 or so side dishes, a third of them will be different variations of kimchi. You can make just about any meal a feast with kimchi as the main ingredient. You can cook it with fish or seafood to get your protein and healthy fats, and use the vegetables that go into kimchi, such as mustard leaves, scallions and radish, as well. In that way, kimchi is a side dish as well as a complete main dish.
For Koreans, it’s not just a dish we like, it’s a cultural symbol. There’s an intimate familiarity and love that Koreans have for this dish. Kimchi is the great equalizer.
In spite of this, we Koreans often turn our noses up at kimchi. We throw a fit if a restaurant refuses to serve kimchi for free. I sell kimchi too, but having kimchi as a separate menu item is considered acceptable because I run an Italian restaurant. Myeongdong’s dim sum emporium, Din Tai Fung has kimchi on the menu at 5,500 won and they have no problem with kimchi sales. It is nearly impossible for a Korean restaurant to sell kimchi on the menu. Koreans say kimchi is their pride yet they assume that it should always be free. This way of thinking encourages the prevalence of mediocre kimchi. To ask for free omelet rolls or free grilled pork at a Korean restaurant requires some thick skin. Kimchi, on the other hand, is a bottomless side dish. To charge money for a kimchi refill means risking the death of your business. This dish might just be the figurative double-edged sword.
When it comes down to it, kimchi is just plain delicious. Of course, there are increasingly more Koreans who eat less kimchi or avoid it altogether. This is the unfortunate reality of the matter. It’s time we gave kimchi its due.
—Park Chan-il (Food Columnist)