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.