An ever-present dish among Koreans

Kimchi, fermented cabbage, serves as an `integral part of everyday life'

September 20, 2006|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A few years ago, Sung Sook Choi of Columbia tried storing her kimchi the old-fashioned way, by burying it in an earthenware jar in the ground. But the Maryland winter wasn't cold enough, and the kimchi spoiled.

Now she relies on a special refrigerator, called a dimchae, to preserve her kimchi (also spelled kimchee). She prepares this quintessential Korean food about once a month and eats it every day. The refrigerator keeps her kimchi at 40 degrees.

Kimchi, a fermented cabbage dish, has a long history in Korea. Hi Soo Shin Hepinstall, a food historian and author of Growing Up in a Korean Kitchen, says the idea of pickling vegetables to preserve them has been around "since the beginning of time."

Kimchi in its current form didn't become popular until the 18th century, she said, after hot peppers were introduced to Korea.

But now no Korean meal would be complete without it. Kimchi will have a prominent place on the menu at the Korean-American Festival, scheduled Saturday at the War Memorial Plaza.

Choi and about 30 other members of the Korean American Church of Philippi in Columbia, mostly women, will prepare kimchi, bul kogi, chicken teriyaki, dumplings, and rice and vegetable rolls called kimpa. Preparations will start at least two days in advance.

Choi said the women also prepare lunch for about 200 people at the church every Sunday. "Kimchi is basic," she said. "Always. Every time. The rest of the menu varies." Choi, who grew up in Seoul, South Korea, remembers that every November, families would make large batches of kimchi to last through the winter. This tradition, called kimjang, still is widely practiced, said Hepinstall, who lives in Washington.

"It was such a huge task, we just shared the labor," said Hepinstall. "All the neighbors get together." About 100 heads of cabbages would be made, enough to last until March. Through Korea's "really biting, hard winter," she said, "we had flavored rice and kimchi."

The kimchi would be stored in pots that were buried in the ground so that just the tops would stick out. There, it would be preserved throughout the winter.

For Koreans living in Maryland and elsewhere, eating kimchi is no longer a matter of survival. But the food is so much a part of Korean culture that Korean mothers in the United States feel compelled to feed it to their children.

"That time because we didn't have anything else to eat," said Hepinstall. "This time because it's so good."

As she writes in her book: "In the days of my childhood, kimchi made up virtually half the daily diet. Today, it is a tasty small side dish, but it is still an integral part of everyday life."

The food, loaded with vitamins and fiber, has been credited with almost mystical illness-fighting capacities.

Diane Kim, who also will be cooking for the festival, said the church has been unable to create a written recipe for kimchi because the creation seems to come from the heart, not a book. "There are no settled rules," she said. "It depends on how your mom taught you."

Kimchi can be made with the addition of seafood such as oysters or shrimp, with cucumbers or with chestnuts. The wrapping can be spinach or bok choy. "There are at least 1,000 ways to make kimchi," Kim said.

"White kimchi," made without hot pepper, is a popular variation for those who don't like very spicy foods.

Kimchi also is the starting point for dozens of other recipes, from soup to pancakes. In fact, Hepinstall said she's working on a cookbook featuring only recipes that start with kimchi.

The basic ingredients of the kimchi that will be served at the Korean-American Festival are cabbage and radish.

Kim said she starts with a box of napa cabbage, about eight large heads. She cuts them in halves or quarters and drops them into an enormous bowl of salted water - "very salty, I'll say."

The saltier the water, the less soaking time is required. Generally, three or four hours is enough, she said. She can tell when the cabbage is ready when it feels soft. Meanwhile, she'll cut about five long white Korean radishes for every box of cabbage.

The radishes are set aside while the sauce is made. Into a medium-sized pot of water, a cup or two of rice flour is stirred. It is boiled, then allowed to cool. Into this starchy water go 30 ounces of minced garlic and 5 cups - yes, 5 cups - of powdered cayenne pepper. Other ingredients include ginger, fish sauce, green onion and sugar.

The radishes are placed in a bowl and the sauce is added. Once the cabbage is soft, it is rinsed several times and thoroughly drained.

Then it's time to assemble. Working with the bowl of seasoned radishes on the right and the cabbages on the left, the kimchi maker tucks the radishes between the leaves of the cabbages.

After a few days, the kimchi is ready.

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