February 7, 2008

Warning: I am actually going to discuss the Meta. Of. Kimchee.


I get in these eating moods where all I seem to do is look for kimchee substitutions, especially when I don't have any at home. Everything gets covered in some kind of hot sauce: falafels, tacos, vietnamese pork chops, scrambled eggs... and the best is of course when that hot sauce is also vinegary like salsa, or vietnamese sriracha sauce which is already vinegary but WITH the little pickled carrots and daikon can almost make you forget you were really needing some kimchee. I know every Korean has eaten his share of ramen with pickles so apparently that extra salt-vinegar-pickle crunch on top of salty savory broth can also hit the spot.

But what is it exactly about kimchee that so defines our cuisine? Why do we have to have it, crave it, and so, are cursed by it?

I read once in some online dissertation that Korean food had six flavors unlike other cuisines which normally have five. Salty, sweet, sour, spicy, bitter and pungent. This writer included kimchee as pungent before spicy which of course it is also. In any case, he didn't really address why or what it meant, just that acquiring this sixth flavor was difficult but transformative once you got it.

My take on this is from a cook's perspective.

Cooking is a primal kind of alchemy. You hunt, you gather, and add fire to transform flesh and field into flavor, into nutrition, and render something that was once out there either as blood and muscle or soil and sun, into an intimate experience which you take into yourself. (This is why food and sex in my opinion go hand in hand and why smoking, the element of fire, is also a natural factor. But I digress.)

At the core of this alchemy is the idea of change, of transformation and, now bear with me, the experience of eating Korean food is predicated on this idea. Where western food is meant to be experienced finally and separately - such as the lovely steak with it's separate side dishes none of which are meant per se to be eaten in the same bite. Korean food is all about shifting flavor and hence, shifting experience. You start with a clean palate, a base of pure white carbohydrate and go through a wonderful choreography of choosing banchan, and no two bites are the same.

Now enter kimchee.

That mouthful of warm sticky rice plus beef and bit of shigumchi (spinach) you're chewing and enjoying, chewing and swallowing then bam! in comes a fireball of salt/sweet/fiery crunch and - a sudden crescendo - the rice, beef and spinach are again transformed. How complicated is that?

And as if it weren't enough to have all this, Koreans add still more to the table — the elements of energy which changes the food even more and right before your eyes. I'm talking about the stew that arrives boiling, or the bibimbop that crackles in it's stone bowl, the cold soups with chunks of ice floating among the cucumber and pear.

Which is why those who do not get Korean food are so hard to watch. They sit at the feast, picking singly at a strand of bean sprout before washing it down with water, or dig into their meal of white rice and bulgogi without even a glance at the symphony around them. And forget kimchee, the smell alone offendeth.

The musical element to eating I think is no accident. For every banchan you add to the table a whole new note is added, and the orchestration of your meal becomes that much more enriched. But the point is kimchee, that final beat which brings it all home. It marries the flavors and instead of ending your mouthful of experience in a quiet fade, it brings it up and loud. It's the punctuation to our score, the last beat in each measure without which the experience is chaotic and unorganized, lacking structure and meaning, a string of notes that sound okay but has no beat.

posted at 10:09 AM by jenn

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02/08/08 04:27 AM

Ooh, you're right, i do love that every bite is a different experience. sometimes i leave the beaten path and exclude kimchi sliver, only to swallow regret. ssambahp is different tho. one could exclude the kimch. but do you ever experience anxiety about whether to include kimchi sliver in sangchu ssam that has gochujang already in there? for me it's like with every bundling. "i mean, i don't NEED it, but it MIGHT taste better...but then again..." if i'm eating any kind of asiany food sans kimchi, there's a vague feeling of deprivation, and after the meal is over i'm actually a little...angry. it's like ordering drive thru fries but not getting ketchup but worse because fries are supposed to be eaten with ketchup, but not all asian food is meant to be eaten with kimchi. at the cherry hill emperor's palace, mom would sneak in tupperwared kimchi, so our family wouldn't experience this sense of abandonment while eating chinese cuisine. by the way this is not a korean is better than other asian food idea i'm expressing here-- it's something i can't control. and it fans beyond asia. i can't eat a hoagie or philly cheesesteak without sweet pickled peppers (substitute kimch) which by the way you cannot find in california. our family has always eaten pickles (sub) with red sauced spaghetti. i'm pretty sure it was you yunny folk who showed us the way to kimchi as the natural compliment -or binder- to italian pasta. it's like ramen, right? Oh, I also find that kimchi is a perfect way to flavor any bland asiany broth... hope this comment wasn't too long, hahaha! but the topic is the k.ch.

02/08/08 12:16 PM

i just had this ephiphany. 'egg-a-bop' was not like 'tilt-a-whirl,' it was our re-pronouncing my mother's pronunciation. just try to hear your mom say 'eggbop.' wouldn't it be s.th. like: "ae guh bahb"?

02/11/08 01:17 AM

My mouth waters. The enjoyment of kimchee is like the enjoyment of the flesh. Both are earthy pleasures not fully understood by those who lack both boldness and subtlety.

02/14/08 09:19 PM

hey erica, your food comment inspired an entry on other food complements, kimchi with pasta was definitely a yun fave and I'm thinking how any meat dish basically could be eaten with rice and then made korean by adding kimchee. and yes, we called it "egg-uh-bop" while mom called it "egg-euh-bop" - I'm thinking this must be a KA thing because of the other responses... but then where would it come from previous to now? It feels vaguely japanese to me...

03/11/08 10:42 PM

I just read this. I want some kimchee. How do you say "pronto" in Korean? Your words make my palate coo coo for kimchee!!

03/30/08 07:37 AM

i actually read your entire post. and for something more than two paragraphs, that says a lot. good writing and a good subject to talk about.

when i eat with koreans, they are forever urging me to not eat things seperately. like, i have to eat the kimchi with the rice with the meat with the soup with the spam. i didn't understand it -- they always said "kimchi so salty" -- but now i do. Thanks for that lesson.

anyway, why don't you make some kimchi at home?i know i probably will after i leave.

03/30/08 11:56 AM

hey justin, thanks for sticking through to the end. i know in fast moving modern blog culture it's uncool to write more than 200 words per post but this is a new skill for me and I'm learning as I go. (though how do you explain the top blogs like dooce who write way more than that)

in any case, i personally appreciate the idea of baekimchi more than the reality. did you know baekimchi is the early prototype of modern kimchi? the red chile pepper wasn't even known in korea until about 500 years ago, it came via trade through mexico and portugal. you can still trace the original ancestor peppers in mexico... yum!

as to why I don't make kimchi at home - because I'm the only one that eats it. also these days I am lucky to cook at all with two little boys demanding to play dinosaur and cars all day. I hope to eventually, I think about it all the time! (in addition to growing and drying my own peppers to do so!)

09/12/08 05:31 PM

Hey Jenn,

I just began a late lunch of pasta with pesto, which was not quite right, so I sprinkled on some minced Indian mango pickle, better but again not quite enough, so then blanketed all with minced on-the-old side kimchi. Ahhh.

pretty good but what I guess I really wanted was bibimbop. Alas, nearest decent bowl is a 15 min drive away, and I'm all out of those little plastic flats of ready-made panchan with which to fake my own.

So I thought of this post and it made me wonder if you would give your comments on David Chang and if you'd seen the New Yorker profile of him, which mentioned his Korean family & background several times? http://thestrongbuzz.com/buzz/details.php?item_id=289

I'd love to hear what you and others have to say on it.

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