Kimchi with a kick
No Korean meal is ever complete without this spicy fermented vegetable
Kimchee with a Kick

No Korean meal is ever complete without this spicy fermented vegetable

First Published:  South China Morning Post, Hong Kong

June 16, 2002

If you are heading to South Korea this week to catch the World Cup quarter finals, you might find more than a football fiesta on your plate. Also on offer will be some tastebud-tingling Korean food, spicing up proceedings and providing much-needed fuel to keep you going through all the excitement.

Topping the list of must-haves will be the sizzling classic, Bulgogi. Finely sliced beef sirloin - marinated in sesame oil, soy sauce, pepper, ginger, green onions, garlic, sugar and wine - barbecued at your table, and served with rows of accompaniments. Pick up pieces of meat with your chopstick, roll them with garlic in a lettuce leaf, dip the roll in the meat juice that's collected on the side of the hotplate, touch it up with red pepper paste and eat it in true Korean style.

And don't miss the Samgyetang, the famous ginseng chicken or the Bibimpap, rice in a stoneware pot with seasonal vegetables and minced beef. Keep some place for the Kalbi - marinated beef short ribs grilled on a charcoal fire - and wash it down with Soju, the potent Korean wine whose alcohol content often hovers around 40%.

If all this gets too hot to handle, cool yourself with Oi Naengguk (chilled cucumber soup with a soy-vinegar base) or a bowl of Mulnaengmyon (buckwheat noodles in a chilled beef broth garnished with sliced beef, boiled egg and Korean pear).

While walking the streets you're sure to stumble upon the culinary underbelly - the exciting food carts in the buzzing bylanes. You'll spot heaps of Paz - sweet potatoes, slightly deep-fried and doused with a red sauce of pepper, honey and fruit juices, Teokk-bokki - hot rice cakes and rows of rows of deep-fried goodies called Twigim.

And if after some raucous football-watching coloured with more than a few beers your head is all woozy the next morning, gulp down some Sunrise Soup(Haejung Kuk),a popular Korean picker-upper guaranteed to get you playing ball in no time.

But whatever you eat, chances are that your meal will be accompanied by Kimchee - the Korean national side-dish.

The common description of Kimchee - "pickled vegetable" is only half the truth. Not only does Kimchee go a step further in its seasonings, mainly red pepper, but also crosses the five main frontiers of taste - salty, sweet, bitter, sour and hot - and conjures up an engaging sixth taste – the taste of fermentation. This sweet-sour-hot-carbonated fermented taste is what makes Kimchee  so addictive to the Korean palate.

Don’t be surprised to find almost 200 types of Kimchee in Korea, ranging from the flagship T’ong Baech’u (whole cabbage Kimchee) to summer specials like Oi’ Sobagi (cucumber Kimchee) and chilled Nabak (water Kimchee) and the fiery Kkaktugi (hot radish Kimchee) and even the exotic Bossam (Kimchee wrapped around seafood or mushrooms ). World Cup matches will go well with creative bar snacks like Bacon and Kimchee stir-fry and Kimchee Tofu and staples like Kimchee Bokumpap (Fried Rice with Kimchi). As long as you are in Korea, remember that "No Kimchee, No Meal" is the Korean food anthem.

Around late November as the mercury starts falling in Korea, trucks laden with cabbage and radish start roaming the markets and makeshift stalls sprout everywhere. Households that still avoid the factory-made variety and swear by the real thing, start the Kimjang – making and storing Kimchee for the entire year.

It is a process that is sacred, scientific, intricate and a bit magical.

The best cabbage and radish are chosen – fresh, clean and scar-free. The star of the show is thick sundried red chilli with shiny skin and the supporting cast - the hot Korean garlic, green onions with white roots and fresh stems, and large-sized thin-skinned ginger which is so soft and juicy inside. Finally the kingmaker - Sea Salt (table salt is a no-no). Sometimes salted shrimp and anchovies and even oyster.

The vegetables are first groomed for the occasion - rough edges trimmed and any wilted leaves torn out. They are then washed again and again and the chillies are wiped clean with napkins. It is all done slowly and with great care as every little thing – even the state of the cook’s mind – is said to affect the taste of Kimchee. Not surprisingly in olden times women were required to purify themselves for 7 days and cover their mouths with rice paper while making Kimchee, lest the harmony of yin and yang be disturbed.

The cabbage heads are cut lengthwise into 4 sections and soaked in brine – the ratio of salt to water depending on the quantity and thickess of cabbage, the time of the year and how long the Kimchee has to be kept. The cabbage absorbs the salt in slow-motion and goes from fresh to salty to slightly sweet, yet retaining the chewy texture.

It was customary for the salting to go on for 7 or 9 days though today housewives usually shorten it to a day. In the meantime she has prepared the seasonings by grinding together the red chillies, finely sliced radish, chopped ginger, chopped green onions and crushed garlic and blended in the shrimp and tossed the mixture with oyster.

Once the salted cabbages are taken out and rinsed and drained, the seasoning is carefully stuffed into the vegetable, holding back the leaves to push the spices in. Then the stuffed cabbage is wrapped with the outer leaves and piles of them are laid tightly pressed down in a sealed jar or earthenware pot and stored in the shade.

Then the magic of fermentation starts. The salt creates an osmotic pressure and sucks out the water from the cabbage cells, so that the seasonings can get inside easily and infuse the vegetable with flavour. The salt and chili and garlic join forces to grow friendly lactic acid bacteria and to keep out the enemy bacteria that would have otherwise turned the Kimchee bad. The lactic acid, together with close cousin Succinic Acid, gives Kimchee its characteristic fermented taste and brings it to the happy point when the cabbage is still chewy, there’s a thin film on the juice and the flavour and goodness is at its delightful best.

This is when the Kimchee is eaten, with steamed rice or as an accompaniment to Bulgogi or just about any dish. If you are a beginner, Kimchi might be too hot or overpowering at first but after a few times the attraction grows and soon you find yourself not able to do without it. And you will only be richer, as Kimchee bursts with Vitamin C and minerals and capsycine and other such goodies, helping keep cholesterol down, blood pressure in check, gastric juices alive and fights constipation and even cancer.

So Mat Itkae Duseyo as the Koreans say – enjoy your food. And may the best team win