Monday, June 11, 2012

Kimchi and more

A few years ago, I travelled to Korea for a very unusual festival.

Well, it was unusual to me, but for millions of Koreans in their own country and overseas, it  was celebrating perhaps the most important part of their menu. Kimchi.

If they know nothing else about Korean cuisine, most people will have heard of kimchi, that fiery, cabbage-y condiment which appears at every meal. And I mean EVERY - breakfast included.

In case this has not entered your shopping list yet, you need to know a few things.

Kimchi is an authentic Korean side dish of pickled vegetables, often (and perhaps mainly) made with Chinese cabbage. However, almost any food can be kimchi-ed, and there are over 170 varieties!

References to kimchi have been found up to 3000 years ago in Korea. Like many countries with cold winters, a way was needed to safely preserve food for use when it was no longer available fresh. Fermentation (think, sauerkraut and pickles in Europe) was the ideal solution.

Although the version most people know involves rubbing a crimson spice mixture between the leaves of brine-soaked Chinese cabbage which is then put to ferment, often for months, in an earthenware pot, there are at least a hundred other types. Even water kimchi, a sort of spicy turnip broth, appears often as one of the multitude of side dishes which are essential at each Korean meal.

Focused as they are on health, the country's 48 million inhabitants believe kimchi is what keeps them well, and some even credit it with protecting them during the SARS epidemic.

There is an annual Kimchi Festival in the southern city of Gwangju and a Kimchi museum in Seoul.

However this is not the only unusual food on tables in Korea. Acorn jelly a wobbly unappetisingly-coloured dish served cold is an acquired taste, as is raw crab which even my guide refused!


In this picture, the roasted chestnuts look delicious, as do the wafer-crisp breads. But look carefully at the simmering pot in the background. Yes, you’re right. Those are silkworm larvae. Having done their work of spinning silk, once it is unwound, they are tossed into a basket ready for their next use – boiled as a protein-rich addition to someone’s lunch. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Beware Indian Figs

One of the most painful foods to eat (painful, that is if you try to handle them with your fingers) are fichi d’India, literally ‘figs of India’ or, as I grew up knowing them, prickly pear.

Anyone who has travelled through Sicily and southern Italy as we did a few years ago (see my book Just a Little Italian) will remember the huge cactus plants growing on roadsides and dotted incongruously in fields.

Those pale-green pads the size of tennis racquets are spiked with vicious thorns, and the plump red or yellow egg-shaped fruit that grow from them are just as dangerous. Their skin is a booby trap full of the finest, almost invisible hairlike spines which attach themselves to clothes and skin without invitation.

So why trouble with such a fruit­ – one that is intent on becoming your enemy, it seems?

Southern Italians have long prized this fruit for a number of reasons. It grows readily in hot arid soil, and it is generous with the fruit it provides. It is free food for foragers, a plus in the past when these regions were sorely poverty-stricken.

After getting our fingers well and truly prickled by the spines in Sicily, we were later told that we should have held them in newspaper while we scooped out the flesh. Some people rub the fruit in sand or swiftly pass them over a flame to remove the spines.

Elsewhere in Sicily, at Modica on the southern coast, in one amazing shop we discovered chilli chocolate and  a liqueur made from fico d’India. The owner warned us that if we ate the chocolate and then drank the  liqueur, ‘then you need someone standing by!’ because of its aphrodisiac results. I didn’t test that tale.

This cactus is only native in the western hemisphere, not on the Indian subcontinent. So why the name ‘figs of India’?

Prickly pear cacti are indigenous to North America, occurring from the arid north-west, through the Rockies, and down to Mexico where they are abundant. They were named for the Native American ‘indians’ and when the fruit was introduced into Europe, the name went with it, at least to Italy. I didn't know that.

Fans of fichi d’India say the flavour is like a cross between strawberry and watermelon, but personally, I would rather eat either of those fruits individually for the rest of my life, (and especially real figs) rather than risk another cactus attack simply to enjoy the flavours in unison!

Do you like this fruit? What is your tip for eating it comfortably? Do you use it in cookery – and if so, how?