Let’s face it. Koreans are not exactly known for their cuisine. Maybe it is their northern climate that freezes out fresh produce. Maybe it is the obsession with spice that has deadened most Koreans’ taste buds leaving them apathetic toward more subtle flavors. Or maybe it is that Korean food requires one to acquire an appreciation for its culinary diamonds in the rough. More recently, I have found myself leaning to the last of these three possibilities.
Koreans don’t help their cause of becoming world renowned chefs when they describe their national dish. Ask any Korean what food best defines their country and they will undoubtedly tell you kimchi. Kimchi is everywhere. As ubiquitous as salt on the American table, kimchi serves as an appetizer, side dish and a seasoning agent all rolled into one. You literally will not have a single meal without the obligatory kimchi accompaniment. If this food is so popular, you ask, why haven’t I had it? Well, I’ll tell you.
The reason kimchi hasn’t gained quite as much popularity in non-Korean circles is because of what it is. Developed as an attempt to preserve produce to eat throughout the long winter, kimchi is cabbage that has been put in a pot and left to ferment in a special sauce. To ensure that your breath will indeed be deadly after consuming it, the kimchi has also been heavily spiced giving it a bright red color. Interested? Yeah, neither was I. Let's be honest, it was a bit too reminiscent of stinky tofu. When we lived in Taiwan we had a few Korean students whose parents made kimchi and brought it to the teachers. I figured that if there was any time I would like kimchi it would be when it was homemade by a Korean. I didn’t like it. In fact, I pretty much hated it.
Fast-forward to moving here and Chris and I felt obliged to try it again. My reaction, still hated it. Chris’ reaction, actually really liked it. He began to pick and choose our Korean restaurants by their quality of kimchi. He even began to crave kimchi and I went so far as to stock up some kimchi in our very own refrigerator. All the while, Chris keeps telling me that I will come around and start enjoying this national treasure. I insisted that I would not, Sam I am, I will not like your cole slaw gone bad!
But, last night, something happened. We went out to a Korean restaurant and I thought I would give it one more go. Not so bad. Maybe one more bite… and one more. Before I knew it, I was actually eating and enjoying kimchi. This sparked a conversation amongst our friends about kimchi and taste preferences. “I like it when it is more fresh and crunchy!” “Not me, I like it when it is soft and chewy.” “I like it when it makes my whole mouth tingle!” “My favorite is the radish kimchi.” “Mine is the cucumber kimchi!”
Here we are, a bunch of foreigners hanging out in a restaurant in Seoul debating the subtleties of kimchi spices and fermentation. Not a conversation I ever expected to have before moving abroad. But, there you have it. My name is Ashley and I like kimchi.