Why I love to make something I can’t eat…
In the beginning.
I remember the first time I had Korean food. It was also the first time I was meeting my future husband’s family, and not only was I nervous about making a good impression, but I would be eating a lot of unfamiliar food. We walked into a restaurant the likes of which I had never seen. The tables had individual grills set into them, with gigantic exhaust fans hanging above. We sat and no fewer than five women descended upon our table, filling up every available surface with tiny bowls filled with amazing, exotic-looking food. One thing immediately leapt out- there were a ton of orange-colored dishes. ‘What are all of these?’ I asked my then-boyfriend. He rattled off a bunch of names that meant nothing to me at the time, but my ears did pick up one word that he kept repeating- spicy. This one was very spicy, this one was sort of spicy, and this one was a little bit spicy. I was disheartened to say the least. I reached out with bone-crunching metal chopsticks and tried a nibble of what I thought he said was “only a little bit spicy”. In hindsight, I should have known that the red flakes sprinkled on the innocent looking cucumbers would make my mouth burn, but I underestimated how much. ‘Maybe this one’, he said, pointing to a plate of orange, sliced cabbage. This time flames actually shot out of my ears. Defeated, I turned my attention to the meat and rice.
I can’t give up yet.
My adventure with kimchi almost ended that day, but I really wanted to be a part of his family’s culture. Kimchi was synonymous with Korean food; it was served at practically every meal, and I was determined to at least try to like it. I didn’t want to be that wimpy white girl who couldn’t handle spice. Even more, I didn’t like to be the center of attention, which I certainly would be if I didn’t eat something as popular as kimchi. I had done it before- had forced myself to like something that I thought was cool, or was so ingrained in everyday life that to not like it would be socially isolating. Coffee, beer, and to a lesser extent cilantro were all foods that I had to learn to like. But the cards were really stacked against me this time, not only did I not like spicy food, but I really didn’t care for fermented food either. I even removed the pickles from my hamburgers. I eventually figured out that the trick was to sandwich the kimchi between bites of white rice, and then chase the whole thing down with soju. I would regret it later, hello heartburn, but at least my food intolerances wouldn’t be the topic of conversation, and fortunately, we didn’t have Korean food very often so I was mostly off the hook.
A brief history.
Kimchi has been a part of Korean culture for thousands of years, and there are hundreds of different varieties. Rich in probiotics, it is considered a superfood. Kimchi is extremely high in fiber but low in calories, and it is packed with vitamins and minerals; antioxidants which reduce inflammation and boost the immune system. Kimchi was originally prepared as a way to preserve vegetables for the winter months. For most of its history, and until only very recently, kimchi was made and stored in earthenware pots, called onggi, and kept outside. This had many benefits including allowing the fermentation to work its magic without the smell becoming too overpowering. Even my husband nostalgically recalled having kimchi pots outside his childhood home in Seoul.
Bonding over mealtime.
I quickly learned how socially important mealtimes were to Koreans. My very first dinner in Seoul, minutes after getting off the airplane, involved meeting all the relatives. They had reserved an entire room at a restaurant, and we shared a large meal and plenty of soju together. It was an entirely different style of eating- communal with everyone sharing from the same small plates. Drinks were poured for one another and no one ordered a dish only for themselves. In this way we were all able to have a shared experience with the same foods. Even the home cooked meals I shared with his family were the same. Ridiculous quantities of food were shared with everyone. Mix in a copious amount of alcohol amidst a lot of laughter and just generally fun conversation, and you had a Korean family meal. Sure there was bickering, sometimes even yelling, but it always came from a place of concern- of love. This is in stark contrast to the meals I ate as a single adult or even while growing up. The kitchen table was rarely used; more often than not, meals were eaten while watching TV on the couch. And we didn’t talk.
This past winter, circumstances led to me stay with my in-laws full time for about a month. My mother-in-law is a wonderful cook and would usually make traditional Korean meals. So it was to my great delight that when she brought out kimchi, it was white. I had never seen white kimchi! This was an exciting revelation indeed! She explained that it was called baek-kimchi and was made without using gochugaru, otherwise known as the deadly red pepper flakes. They liked it because it was simply more palatable to them in their older age. I cautiously tried a bite. The taste was complex- vinegar, with a hint of sweetness, and it was very refreshing. You know how they use sliced ginger as a palate cleanser at sushi bars? This was very similar. I loved it, and the effect that it had on my digestive system was nothing short of a miracle.
New problems, old solutions.
Fast forward and my husband and I had just moved to central Oregon. We love it here, surrounded on all sides by nature, and we don’t get all the rain that the coast does because it is situated in high desert. But unfortunately, it’s a Korean food desert as well. There isn’t a single Korean restaurant in town. You know that old saying that you only want what you can’t have? Right. We were craving Korean food like never before. We also found ourselves not wanting to lose our ties with the culture, something we took for granted in Southern California. So we began to watch K-dramas for the first time, (fair warning, they are addictive!) and I returned to studying the language with a new resolve. But watching the dramas just made our food situation more miserable. To see the characters eating all this delicious food that we could no longer have was almost unbearable. The solution was clear-we were going to have to make our own.
We were able to get a lot of the ingredients at our local grocery store, but the more specialty items, like the gochugaru, had to be purchased online. We decided to split the labor; my husband would take care of marinating the meat: bulgogi, pork belly and kalbi short ribs. I was in charge of the banchan, the little side dishes. At first I was nervous, I had never made Korean food before and was unfamiliar with so many of the ingredients. Not to mention, I didn’t like a lot of them- garlic, onions and ginger have never been my friends. But I was determined and found a few simple recipes. And here’s the thing, once I started to make a few, I noticed the same ingredients would pop up over and over again. I could whip up five or six dishes in one sitting and they would store beautifully for weeks in the fridge. But there was one glaring omission- no kimchi.
The big experiment.
I knew my husband really missed it, but it sure seemed like a lot of work. In the K-dramas, kimchi making involved large groups of women gathering together, spending all day making obscene amounts of kimchi. We’re talking hundreds of cabbage heads and buckets of garlic cloves. One of my favorite scenes showed the women actually using sea water to salt the cabbage. I didn’t have sea water but I decided to at least try it. I found a recipe called “emergency kimchi” and knew I had a winner. I had all the basic ingredients: napa cabbage, fish sauce, garlic, ginger, sugar, green onions and carrots. It was going well, I thought I might even try it, until I got to the gochugaru. The recipe demanded one-third cup of the stuff! That seemed like a crazy amount and I didn’t want to kill my husband, so I only used one-fourth. We let it ferment in the garage for a few days, and voila. Kimchi. I had actually done it. And it was good. I had to laugh though when I asked him if it was too spicy- he actually said it could be hotter. Next time, I would follow the recipe.
With this victory under my belt, I wondered if I could make the white kimchi which I liked. I will say it was the more difficult of the two. It involved making a brine with fruit and onion and it did take a lot longer to ferment and get that taste that I remembered, but it also wasn’t too hard. I was just so happy to be able to make something that reconnected my husband to his culture and that gave him so much joy. And now we eat Korean food more than ever, at least once a week. We even splurged on a portable hibachi gas grill so we can cook the meat directly at the table, (no, it doesn’t smoke up the house) and we can’t wait to share this cuisine with our new friends. Now if only we could stop using those painful metal chopsticks!