It’s a staple on every menu across Korea, but that doesn’t mean kimchi is easy to digest. Still, in gaining appreciation for the pungent, chilli-laced dish, you’ll likely learn a lot about the nuances of the country’s formidable cuisine.
Kimchi, Korea’s ubiquitous national dish, is the food staple of the country’s cuisine. It is most commonly recognised in the fiery baechu iteration, made from ingredients including napa (Chinese) cabbage, radishes, fish sauce, oysters, onions, ginger, garlic and pepper powder so hot it might have been harvested straight from the surface of the sun. Kimchi is spicy. Really spicy. Mexican breakdance spicy.
Kimchi accompanies most Korean meals as a side dish, or banchan, though it is often combined with other ingredients to create potent superfoods such as kimchi fried rice, kimchi stew and kimchi pizza. It’s present at breakfast, lunch and dinner – about the only time you shouldn’t expect to be served kimchi is with your evening tea.
Kimchi is popular. Kimchi is good for you: one-time chair of the annual Gwangju Kimchi Festival, Kim Sung-Hoon, says Korean women “have such smooth skin … because they have grown up on kimchi.” Furthermore, Korean women are “thin and intelligent because their diet contains healthy amounts of kimchi.” If you are pretty and skinny, chances are you eat your fair share of kimchi. In related news, everyone in Korea is pretty and skinny.
Yet I’ve never been a big fan of the stuff.
Perhaps it has something to do with the spice, or the smell, or all the fermenting and fish sauce, but I’ve found it difficult to develop a love for kimchi or for Korean food in general. I recently spent a year living in Seoul; much of that time was spent avoiding kimchi. When Korean friends asked me to dinner, I told them I had to wash my hair. When kimchi couldn’t be avoided, I’d tell anyone within earshot that it reacted adversely to my medication – when pressed, I’d say I was taking medication for anxiety (brought on by the thought of eating kimchi). I did anything and everything I could to avoid eating old cabbage – but when I decided to make Korea my home for a second year, I knew I would have to learn to eat it. Understanding Korea means accepting kimchi into your life, like it or not.
But where to begin?
Tracing 5,000-odd years of Korean culinary tradition through history is a daunting task. Nomadic tribes people began fermenting beans in clay pots sometime around 1500 B.C., a rudimentary precursor to the cultivation of the all-important food staple, which was being consumed across the peninsula by the time of the Baekje Dynasty (18 B.C. to 660 A.D.) during the period of the Three Kingdoms. Subsequent invasions, occupations and assaults by the Mongols, the Manchurians and colonialists brought to East Asia new spices, noodles, crops and cultivation methods that helped shape the culinary landscape of what was long the world’s most mysterious Hermit Kingdom.
Suffice to say, there’s a lot of history and tradition woven into the culinary fabric of Korea. It’s next to impossible to take one element of the country’s cuisine and understand it without knowing something of the whole. I could have put a picture of kimchi on the wall and obsessed over it, ridiculed it and thrown darts at it, or I could have trained like Rocky, eating kimchi before running a kilometre and then beating on hanging sheets of raw cabbage with my bare fists in some Seoul meat-locker. Maybe I could have defeated kimchi, but I would have been no closer to understanding it.
I tried to get to know kimchi at home: I cooked up a batch of winter kimchi, but the freezer ruined it. Next I put some old cabbage, brined anchovies and fish sauce in a clay pot under my bed and forgot about it for a month. I stunk up my apartment and all my clothes, but edible kimchi I did not create. I decided that I was going to have to get to know kimchi – and Korean food – in someone else’s kitchen.
On the surface, Korean cuisine is roughly defined as the meeting of rice and kimchi, yet at its core, the culinary tapestry of Seoul is interwoven with richness and vibrant delicacy. Korea is also among the most social nations on Earth, a place where eating out with friends and co-workers is more common than doing so at home. This means that locals and visitors alike are spoilt for choice when it comes to dining.
Seoul boasts what is perhaps the world’s best hawker-stall culture: entire city blocks lined with orange tarpaulin tents serve delectable – and frequently pungent – fare. Deep-fried sweet potatoes, fiery tteokbokki (rolled rice cakes in chilli sauce), ojinguh che (dried cuttlefish) and delicious hangwa – traditional confectioneries – are but some of the treats offered up to hungry visitors around the clock.
I enlisted the help of Wine Korea’s Joshua Hall to help make sense of this gastronomic wonderland. Hall, a food and wine blogger of regional note, had me marvelling at an opulent feast of jeonbokjuk (abalone rice porridge), kimchi stew, gamjatang (pork-spine soup) and samgyeopsal (unseasoned bacon cooked on a grill with kimchi). He couldn’t quite convert me to the house that kimchi built on his first effort, but he worked at it.
“You probably didn’t like beer the first time you tried it,” Hall said. “But you had it enough that you acquired a taste for it.” I patted my belly and nodded solemnly. “Korean cuisine is just like that; it takes some time to get used to fermented foods and raw ingredients – however, you can wash down just about anything with the right bottle of wine.”
Hall and I visited Cham Sut Gol restaurant in Gangnam to try Royal Court food; we cooked our own meal over a wood charcoal fire and popped open a bottle of Burgundy. The galbitang (stewed beef ribs) was sublime, though it should be: chefs prepare less than 50 servings a day for a first-come, first-served crowd.
The Korean flavours were growing on me; I was now a fan of green tea ice-cream, pumpkin porridge and a host of other foods I never would have tried before Hall’s little lessons. I had suddenly realised that the definition of Korean cuisine was limited only by my imagination, and that kimchi didn’t have to be where I began and ended this odyssey.
I jumped on a high-speed train for Busan, the coastal metropolis and Korea’s second-largest city. I visited the city’s massive fish market, Jagalchi, where merchants and vendors hawk the country’s freshest seafood and cook what they’ve caught right before your eyes. I tried blowfish for the first time and filled up on grilled flower crab, giant prawns and mussels bigger than my fist. At the behest of one particularly pushy chef, I tasted raw sea urchin and sea cucumber, though I wouldn’t recommend either for the faint of heart. Korea comes alive in Busan; by the time I left, I felt like the sea was a part of me.
Fortified by my experiences and confident I would eventually conquer kimchi, I decided I would try and tangle with some of Korea’s most nefarious foods. Joe McPherson – the founding editor of the popular food blog ZenKimchi International and a brilliant chef in his own right – once introduced Andrew Zimmern of the television show Bizarre Foods to wriggling, raw octopus as well as sundae, a type of blood sausage stuffed into a cow’s intestine. Following the example set by these food radicals, I grabbed a cup of steaming silkworm larvae (a popular snack food) at Seoul Station and headed south for the city of Suwon.
I spent most of the ride trying to find a reason for eating bugs out of a cup, but by the time my train pulled into the station, I was confronted with a new challenge: galbi, also known as grilled beef short ribs, served with as many as 20 side-dishes.
Suwon is known as the birthplace of modern Korean barbeque, and the tented stalls that populate the alleys surrounding Suwon Station serve some of the finest food in the country – complimented, of course, by generous helpings of kimchi, all washed down with a sweet distilled alcohol known as soju, the seminal national spirit.
With the spirit of the nation coursing through my veins, I bit into a piece of hongeo, or skate, a ray-like fish fermented underground for weeks until it eventually takes on the character and aroma of a urinal cake. Today, hongeo is only consumed regularly by grizzled Korean working-class men and hardcore seafood fanatics: aficionados swear that by your 10th meal of the stuff, you’ll love it. But I didn’t love it and wasn’t prepared to eat it nine more times. Rays, like sharks, don’t have a urinary tract; their urine is instead expelled through their skin. When their flesh is fermented, uric acid takes on the characteristics of ammonia. Legendary travel writer and food philosopher Anthony Bourdain has called hongeo the worst thing he ever consumed. With a mouthful of rotten ray, kimchi doesn’t seem half bad.
I returned home that evening smelling as if I’d spent all day in a bathroom stall at the airport. Worst of all, the taste of hongeo was still on my tongue. Earlier in the week, I had come across a recipe for makgeolli, a traditional rice wine that has been consumed in Korea for more than 1,000 years. Makgeolli is made by combining short-grain rice, yeast and a fungus known as nuruk in a cheese-cloth bag and fermenting the ingredients for five days; I figured that drinking this potent spirit, with an alcohol content of 12 to 17 percent, would be a sure-fire way to dispel the unwanted taste of ray from my mouth.
I transformed my bathtub into my own personal distillery, nearly blowing up my tiny apartment in the process. In the end, I succeeded in crafting a silky-smooth beverage that washed away all traces of rotten fish and elevated my understanding of Korean food to a higher plane.
A few weeks later, a Korean friend invited me out for dinner. Without hesitation, I accepted, ready to test my mettle once and for all. I met my friend and half-a-dozen pals for a barbeque feast that included a full complement of the season’s hottest kimchi. While arguing the merits of the Wonder Girls versus Big Bang on the K-pop scale and going shot for shot over a case of soju, I happened to dunk a slice of kimchi in doenjang (a fermented soybean paste), topped it with slices of pickled bean sprouts and cucumber, and folded it into a fresh leaf of lettuce. Before I finished chewing the first piece, I began absentmindedly prepping another. Suddenly, kimchi wasn’t something to be feared; it was just another of the deceptively simple pleasures of life in Korea.
Once you’ve run through the formidable gauntlet that is Korean cuisine – and you discover that it’s more than chilli peppers, barbecued pork and fermented cabbage – it’s next to impossible to emerge out the other side without an insatiable urge for kimchi with all the trimmings. After two years in Korea, my palate had grown accustomed to the spices and the flavours of the peninsula, but I never did get the hang of hongeo.
Maybe I’ll give it one more try. •
Photography by Flash Parker.
• Asiana.1300-767-234; au.flyasiana.com
• Korean Air. 61-2/9262-6000; koreanair.com
• Qantas. 131-313; qantas.com.au
when to go
The annual monsoon brings heavy rains to the Korean peninsula June through July; the best time to visit South Korea is during the spring or autumn. The annual Kimchi Culture Festival in Gwangju takes place in mid-October (autumn), while in April and May (spring), the famous cherry blossoms blanket the country in a sea of soft pink. kimchi.gwangju.go.kr
where to sleep
The Banyan Tree Club & Spa Seoul occupies an historic building overlooking the Han River and Namsan Park. In addition to a spa, the property offers diversions ranging from a golf driving range, basketball and tennis courts to indoor and outdoor swimming pools, an ice-skating rink and 12 restaurants and bars. banyantree.com
The sleek, modern rooms at the W Seoul-Walkerhill are categorised as “wonderful,” “marvellous”, “fabulous”, “wow” and “extreme wow”, and come with little extras such as foot-massaging rugs, rainforest showers and DVD home theatres. 82-2/465-2222; starwoodhotels.com
The Lotte Hotel offers Busan’s best sea and city views, a flotilla of facilities, plus the opportunity to enjoy coffee and cocktails in the whimsical Windsor Bar. lottehotelbusan.com
where to eat
• Cham Sut Gol. 2/F, Mugyo-dong, Jung-gu 140-749, Seoul; 82-2/2269-5834.
• Namdaemun Night Market. 49 Namchang-dong, Jung-gu 100-804, Seoul; 82-2/752-1913.
• Yeonpo Galbi. 25-4 Buksu-dong, Paldal-gu, Suwon; 82-31/245-5900.
Contact the Korea Tourism Organization for additional information about visiting Seoul. english.visitkorea.or.kr