When you think of Korean cuisine, what comes to mind? Is it the spaghetti-and-meatballs of the culture, known as jap chae? Or perhaps your mind goes to bulgoki, the tender strips of beef that are marinated and grilled.
If you’re like me, you immediately think of kimchi. Kimchi is the national food of Korea and is served at breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s also used in cooking dishes – especially stews. So representative of Korean culture is this spicy, vinegary cabbage dish that there is even a museum in Korea devoted to it. That’s right – the Kimchi Field Museum opened in 1986 under the sponsorship of a large Korean food production company. Pulmuone, Inc. (http://www.kimchimuseum.co.kr).
Kimchi has evolved within the context of Koren cuisine over hundreds and hundreds of years. There are numerous variations on the basic recipe (which includes cabbage, chilies, ginger, scallions, garlic and vinegar) that change by region and family. Variations between spicy to set-your-mouth-on-fire, as well as between levels of tang, all put a stamp on the final outcome.
I first discovered kimchi when I was a freshman in college. David Lee, my small group leader, organized an excursion for all of us to Kabuki House, a Japanese/Korean restaurant located in Central Square, Cambridge, MA (that has, sadly, closed). We were l8 and David made us line up by the bus, giving us each a token as we boarded. No, I’m not kidding.
The restaurant, like the owner, was warm. It felt like you were in someone’s dining room and not a restaurant. We ordered a combination of Japanese and Korean dishes, which were accompanied by spinach, daikon, and of course, kimchi. From the time the spicy, pungent, crunchy cabbage hit my mouth, I knew that I had begun what would be a lifelong love affair.
Over the course of my 25-plus year relationship with kimchi, I’ve learned that a cook’s individual personality, mood and taste affect how the kimchi comes out. And by the way, kimchi-making is the domain of Korean women.
I have posted elsewhere in my blog about kimchi at various restaurants. However, it’s not really feasible to eat at Korean restaurants for both lunch and dinner, every day. So what’s the alternative?
There are two, as I see it. One is to make kimchi from scratch. That is on my to-do list and I will blog about it after I make a batch of it. The second, make-do alternative is to buy kimchi at the store. There are several brands on the market, each with their own taste.
I’ve eaten two recently, both of which I enjoyed. The first (I ate half a jar over the course of one day) brand is King’s (http://www.kingsasian.com)/ Generally, I prefer very hot kimchi. The supermarket had only the mild variety. This one lists the ingredients as: nappa cabbage, garlic, scallion, hot pepper, sugar, salt, paprika and ginger.
I really liked the King’s brand. It was quite mild and I think, accessible to those who are wary of spicy foods. While there is sugar in it, it is (at least to me) difficult to taste. It had a nice vinegary tang with just enough salt. And the crunchiness was delightful!!! I am looking forward to trying the spicier version.
The second brand that I’d like to mention is made by Kimchee Pride (kimcheepride.com). The listed order of ingredients is: Chinese cabbage, onion, garlic, ginger, scallion, red pepper, salt, sugar, and anchovy sauce. This brand of kimchi has more of a kick to it, which I really liked. While I could taste the tanginess of the vinegar, it seemed to compete with the sweetness of sugar. It’s not unpleasant at all, but I’m not accustomed to eating kimchi that is as sweet as Kimchee Pride is.
While I love eating kimchi as part of a total meal, there’s nothing more satisfying than eating it right from the jar!