Kimchi is going global

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 20, 2010

I made my first batch of kimchi the first week of October. Since then, there has been only a single 13-day period when I haven't had some in the fridge. Thirteen very long days.

What started out as a neat addition to a dinner party menu -- "Let's try something from the new Momofuku cookbook" -- turned into an all-out obsession with funky, spicy Korean fermented cabbage. It was terrific with the hanger steak at dinner and maybe better with steamed rice or poached eggs after a few more days in the fridge. Soon, I began to crave it, the same way most people yearn for chocolate cake. That's when I realized that kimchi also tastes pretty darn good right out of the jar.

"It's like cabbage crack," I told my fiance as we polished off one of our early batches for a mid-morning snack. Then we both burst into hyena-like laughter. We were in trouble.

My kimchi habit will no doubt be a great relief to the government of South Korea, which has made spreading the word about the country's national dish an official policy. The Korea Food Research Institute has a traditional-foods division charged with the "scientific research of Korean fermented foods such as sauces, alcohols, and kimchi for their globalization," according to its Web site.

At first, such a policy might seem odd; Americans have a fierce love affair with hamburgers, but I'm unaware of any government program to evangelize them. We've left that job to McDonald's. But in Korea, kimchi is a national obsession. Seoul has a kimchi museum with a vast collection of cookbooks, cooking utensils and storage jars. Families around the country own special refrigerators designed to maintain the optimal temperature for the stinky vegetables' fermentation and preservation. Perhaps the most famous example of the nation's kimchi fever is that South Korean scientists spent years developing a recipe for a bacteria-free "space kimchi" to accompany their first citizen's visit to the international space station.

"This will greatly help my mission," Ko San, then a 30-year-old computer scientist, said in a statement quoted by the New York Times before he was to blast off in 2008. "Since I am taking kimchi with me, this will help with cultural exchanges in space."

Kimchi has been an integral part of Korean culture for thousands of years. The first record of it dates to the 7th century, according to Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee, author of "Quick and Easy Korean Cooking" (Chronicle Books, 2009), though it is believed that Koreans have eaten it for far longer. Modern versions didn't arise until the 15th century, when the first chili peppers arrived from the new world. About that time, cooks also began to add salted seafood, which gives the dish its pungent perfume.

Traditional kimchi, the kind I've been making, uses Napa cabbage. But there are seemingly infinite varieties. In Seoul, you might find baby ginseng kimchi, while north and south of the city, eggplant and pumpkin varieties are common. Historically, kimchi was made in late fall and buried in earthen jars to preserve it during the winter. Today, it is made year-round and varies with the season, incorporating Asian radishes in winter and cucumbers in summer.

Rice-based (and occupying) cultures such as Japan took a shine to kimchi long ago. The food's recent entrance into the American mainstream is driven by two larger trends. The first is a new fixation on all things fermented: pickles, dilly beans, sauerkraut and chowchow are now standard at gourmet groceries and farmers markets. Why not stinky pickled cabbage?

The second is broader awareness of, and familiarity with, Korean cuisine. Over the past 30 years, Americans have embraced sushi, pad Thai and the Vietnamese noodle soup pho. But Korean food has been a harder sell. In part, it's because the cuisine is newer to America. The largest wave of Korean immigrants arrived here in the 1970s and '80s. And it is only recently that a second, more assimilated generation has taken over.

I see the change at Korean restaurants. Eight years ago, when I worked near Koreatown in New York, I was relentlessly steered to the "safe" bibimbap despite my pleas for something else. Today, Korean chefs are willing to walk a newbie through a traditional menu (see: Honey Pig in Annandale). Hot young chefs, such as Momofuku's David Chang in New York and Kogi's Roy Choi in Los Angeles, are experimenting with using classic ingredients in new ways. "When chefs put kimchi in a quesadilla, they start to get the flavor out, and both Koreans' and Americans' impression that it's just too spicy starts to dissipate," said Debra Samuels, co-author of "The Korean Table" (Tuttle, 2008).

Once I fell for kimchi, I started to see it everywhere. This week the Source by Wolfgang Puck is launching a new Asian menu in its lounge including a dish of Korean short ribs with cabbage and radish kimchi. At the Bethesda Central Farm Market, Eric Johnson, who made his name as a chocolatier, turned up this month selling vegan kimchi: cabbage pickled with garlic, ginger and cayenne. (A strong believer in whole and raw foods, Johnson won't add fish sauce or salted shrimp unless he can make the ingredient himself.) Oh Pickles, a vendor at several Washington area markets, also plans to add kimchi to its line of pickled cucumbers and tomatoes soon.

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