I was very nervous. More than I should have been really. I had worked under some intimidating chefs, so making kimchi with my Korean mother in law, Mrs. Pyo, shouldn’t have been a nerve-wracking prospect.
But at the time I was not even a full day married to her daughter, my Korean was patchy, her English was non existent and I was still finding my place in this new family, not to mention this new country. Korea, a land where Confucianism is still prevalent, where age and respect are crucial to all social interactions, can be a tricky place for a Westerner to navigate.
Mrs. Pyo’s kitchen is small, but well organized. Rather like the woman herself. Sitting proudly in the center of the Formica counter top is the rice cooker, an indispensable machine in all Korean kitchens. It even speaks to you, chirping out little updates as it cooks the rice. I can only understand parts of it, but I find it comforting to hear, especially when cooking at home in London.
It takes me straight back to that first experience in Seoul—as I tentatively helped my mother in law to prepare this dish of spiced cabbage, a dish so steeped in cultural tradition and Korean identity, that is has been inscribed into the UNESCO list of practices that are considered to be an ‘intangible cultural heritage of humanity’.
Of course, I needn’t have been nervous. Mrs. Pyo was as kind and patient as her daughter, lovingly showing me how to make this fiery fermented cabbage seasoned with ‘gochugaru’, the ubiquitous Korean chili powder. I had eaten this famous side dish many times before, but on this occasion it was truly special. Made in complete silence because of our lack of a common tongue, Mrs. Pyo slowly and purposefully guided me through each step. We were utterly present in the moment, longing to be able to communicate, but at the same time conscious of the universal language of food and that perhaps words were not necessary on this occasion.
Nine years on, my wife and I go to great lengths to keep this wonderful cuisine alive in our kitchen here in London, 8,800 kilometers away from its birthplace. Each year, around late Autumn, we get together to make our own batch of homemade kimchi for the season ahead, much like the practice of ‘kimjang’, where right across Korea, families congregate in November to prepare enormous quantities of kimchi to last them through the winter.
While cabbage is the most popular and widely used vegetable for kimchi, there are up to 200 different recipes, making use of almost every kind of vegetable and green leaf available, and also some fruit kimchis too.
To facilitate this national past time, large dedicated markets pop up in public spaces selling the integral ingredients needed to prepare this delicious ferment. Enormous mounds of cabbage and radish tower over you as you wander around, with slightly smaller troughs of garlic, ginger, chili powder, chives and fermented fish sauce huddled beside them.
The myriad health benefits are a major incentive to making your own ferments, but the complex and ever-changing flavor profile is just as exciting—adding incredible bursts of flavor to salads, sandwiches and dressings, or just as a simple side dish to go with a main meal.
Fermentation has been used as a form of traditional preservation in all food cultures at one time or another; it is only since refrigeration became commonplace that its popularity began to wane. However, we shouldn’t forget that many of our most loved foods and drinks have gone through some form of fermentation: wine, beer, chocolate, cheese, coffee, yoghurt, sourdough bread and miso paste are just some of the fermented foods we consume on a daily basis.
Fermented vegetables are low in sugar but rich in fibre, minerals, nutrients and amino acids, and contain up to a thousand times more lactobacillus than yoghurt. The live bacteria, or probiotics, contained in fermented foods are great for our digestive tracts, helping to restore the natural balance of healthy gut bacteria, which have diminished over time from our consumption of antibiotic drugs and chlorinated water. So I suppose it is no wonder really that Korea is one of the healthiest nations in the world today.
To be honest though, the health benefits are just an added bonus; it is the delicious nuanced flavor, and the sense of this food being almost alive, constantly evolving and changing over time, that keeps me hooked.
Having learned how to make cabbage kimchi all those years ago in Seoul, it is no surprise that it is still my favourite dish to make at home, and like any good Korean son in law, I dutifully follow those same steps taught to me by my mother in law every time I make it.
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