Kimchi and All of Its Friends

July 12th, 2016
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Margaret Cleveland (ETA 2015-16), who teaches at an elementary school in Yeongcheon, making kimchi at a community event.

Jenna Smith, Gwangju- It’s 12:25pm on Wednesday, and I can hear my stomach growling. It’s almost time to eat! I have made it a tradition to ask each class I teach directly before lunch, “What’s on the menu today, folks?”

This question is typically met with a variety of shouts. “Bulgogi.” “Pizza toast.” “Bananas” “Rice.” “Bibimbap.” “I don’t knowwww!” And without a doubt the majority of my students (especially those who have no clue what comestibles are slated for today) will shout, “KIMCHIIIIII!!!!!!!.”

It never fails. Rain or shine. Winter or summer. Friday or Monday. There will be kimchi. Sometimes more than one type of kimchi is served. When I was a fresh transplant at Jangdeok Middle School, I didn’t know this about kimchi. I thought there was only one kind, the red kind. Until one period before lunch, the class captain, Chan In, plucked the scales of ignorance from mine unknowing eyes and revealed to me that today there would be kimchi, but not the red kind.  Gasp. Today we would be feasting on one of kimchi’s peers, the water kind.  

“Jenna Teacher,” Chan In said with a reverential tone one would use when revealing knowledge of utmost importance, “kimchi has really many friends.”

So the red kimchi, formally known as “whole cabbage kimchi” does not stand alone. Instead, its popularity simply reigns supreme over its hundreds of colleagues. Yes, hundreds. More than 100 known varieties of Korea’s national food exist, including water kimchi and radish kimchi.

A legend is born…

According to the Journal of Ethnic Foods, the first written record of kimchi can be dated back to 500 BC. Korea is known for its cold winters and little fertile area, therefore kimchi was first created to extend the life of vegetables. Normally, vegetables would spoil rather quickly, but if you add a mixture of special ingredients, the growth of putrefactive bacteria slows, while the lactic acid bacteria, which changes into a form humans can eat, grows- YUM.

Illustration of Kimchi on Coffee Sleeve by Monica Heilman (ETA 2014-16)

Illustration of Kimchi on Coffee Sleeve by Monica Heilman (ETA 2014-16)

The first kimchies looked much different than what we see today, as they were mostly different types of radish dipped into a salty paste. It was not until the Chosun Dynasty that the infamous red cabbage kimchi, which we know and love today, was presented to the Korean diet.  According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs in Korea, at this time Chinese cabbages were introduced as the main ingredient for making kimchi. Around the same time, hot red peppers were imported from Japan, but it took roughly 200 years until they were actively used as a staple ingredient in the kimchi-making process.

So just how much does Korea love Kimchi?

Well, for starters, Koreans like kimchi so much they figured out how to send it into space. And space kimchi is born (a new friend to add to the list)! Wherever Koreans go, kimchi must also go.

According to the New York Times, the Korean astronaut Ko San believes that space kimchi will not only help him combat homesickness, but it will also allow him to facilitate cultural exchange thousands of miles from earth. Space kimchi also has 1/3 the smell of normal kimchi in the hopes that other astronauts will feel comfortable trying it.

The homesick astronaut reaching for kimchi to comfort himself reminds Jenna of her host father, Yu Hoon.

Jenna explains, “He told me a story about kimchi my first night at his apartment. Yu Hoon lived for 12 years in America working on his PhD. He recalled a time when he was living in Florida without his wife. He was so homesick, he tried to make kimchi. He chuckled as he told me how miserable his kimchi tasted, but he ate it all anyway. Why? ‘Because bad kimchi is better than no kimchi.’”’

For Ji Yoon Noh, kimchi is a very matriarchal food. When she thinks about kimchi, her mind conjures up images of the faces of important women in her life: her mom, her grandmother, her aunts, and the women at her church.

Ji reminisces, “Kimchi is such a staple in Korean cuisine; meals would not be the same without it, yet only about half the population knows how to make it.” Her memories and thoughts of kimchi represent a distinctly female power vehicle. She chuckles as she thinks to herself, “Korean women could control men by withholding the most prized possession in the Korean culture: kimchi.”

So how do current ETA’s feel about kimchi?

Our current class of ETA’s has a range of feelings about the taste of kimchi. Victoria Su discusses the nuances of kimchi’s flavor, writing, “Some kimchi is really good, and some of it is really bad. My host family makes theirs once a year. Host mom said this year’s batch was not so good, but we have to eat it anyway, because we have an entire fridge full of it.”

Monica Mehta honestly reflects on her complex relationship with kimchi, writing, “I finally admitted to myself that I don’t like kimchi. Kimchi bokkeumbap is heaven, but kimchi itself just doesn’t do it for me.”

Grilled or cooked kimchi in a variety of forms seems to be a favorite amongst most ETA’s, but not all.

Abigail Bard admits, “If I don’t eat kimchi every day, I get sad.”

Maggie Johnston concurs, “I love kimchi and will miss it terribly when I go back to the States.”

One thing ETAs can agree on: kimchi is synonymous with community.  Whether you are on the fence about the spiciness, prefer it cooked, favor your host mom’s kimchi to your school cafeteria’s kimchi, or love it just the way it is, kimchi brings people together.

Jenna Smith reflects, “Raw kimchi is too spicy for me (though I love it on the grill), but I will never forget when I got home around 10pm on a Friday night and my host father was spreading newspaper all over the living room floor. He beckoned me over, ‘Let’s make some kimchi, Jenna!’ My host mother supervised from the couch and we got to work. Our batch turned out ‘so, so,’ according to my host mother but I feel particularly inclined to eat it, knowing the effort that we put into that batch.”

Rachel Brooks concurs, “Making kimchi with people is such a great bonding experience.”

Esther Kim had the opportunity to make kimchi from the cabbages her school staff had grown in their own school garden. She reflects, “To grow, make, and eat food together as a community is really beautiful and also celebrates the countless generations of Korean people who’ve taken part in this cultural tradition surrounding kimchi.” kimchi1

What Jenna finds so interesting about kimchi is how ubiquitous it is in Korea especially at mealtime and in the kitchen, given the presence of a fridge devoted solely to it. Jenna waxes rhapsodic, “Meals don’t seem complete without it and I am hard-pressed to think of any food I have a similar relationship to. Though I love my Dad’s cheeseburgers, it’s not the same. I noticed that everyone I spoke to about kimchi: my students, co-teachers, host siblings and parents, ETAs, and even those who are impartial to the taste used a reverential tone when sharing their thoughts.”

Esther Kim notes, “Regardless of how other people may view kimchi (and by extension, Korean Americanness), I think I’ve come to be proud of and celebrate my Korean Americanness – for myself, my family, and not for the acceptance/approval/comfort of others.”

Kimchi is so much more than a food. Its pungent flavor represents an even richer culture and people. Kimchi’s smell does not go unnoticed much like the strength, integrity, and work ethic of the Korean people.  Kimchi, not only has other vegetable friends, but it also counts millions of people as its loyal comrades worldwide and even in space.

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