The Great Kimchi War

Plate of my favorite scene of Boys Over Flowers-kimchi making and feeding as a quirky, pre mating ritual. (Try to ignore that Gu Jun Pyo’s arms are strangely long on this plate and focus on the cute cat stuffed animal that the character Geum Jandi made for similarly curly haired Gu Jun Pyo.)

Some nations fight over resources like land, oil and/or diamonds. I recently read that China and South Korea have tussled over kimchi, that is the origin of the heralded fermented cabbage; supposedly around the end of 2020, China registered the kimchi recipe with the International Organization for Standardization. Some Koreans were up in arms that the Chinese had appropriated Korea’s iconic dish. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, instead of apologizing, said that China had registered a recipe for the Chinese dish paozai, which is supposedly kimchi’s lesser-known doppelganger.

With my scant knowledge of Korean history, even I, know this is the ultimate battle cry. Kimchi is not a footnote for Koreans. It’s a badge of Korean identity. The Korean Vegan, a vegan attorney/blogger who specializes in vegan Korean recipes, questioned whether she can be Korean and not eat kimchi (that traditionally has fish sauce/fish in it). (See http://www.thekoreanvegan.com).

One of my favorite Kdramas of all time, Boys over Flowers, included pivotal scenes in which the rich, entitled male protagonist, Gu Jeun Pyo shows his adoration for working class Geum Jandi by showing up to her family’s humble apartment and spending the day roughing it –including making kimchi with her family. (See video below). They joyfully toss whole cabbages to each other and later feed each other handfuls of kimchi from a vat. The ultimate foreplay. (If my own husband had walked into this kind of messy, malodorous melee before we got married, he would have run away screaming).

Many Korean families have a separate refrigerator for their kimchi that thrives under specific temperature; when I go to Seoul for my 50th birthday in two years, I plan to stop by the Kimchi museum (https://www.kimchikan.com) and of course gorge myself on the 187 varieties of the cabbage dish. This temple to Kimchi is supposedly a popular tourist destination and features the history of kimchi and demonstrations on making it etc.

Because I am no cook, I once served my culinarily-gifted friend Erin my sad, lazy version of a dish called Kimchi Kwok; I added kimchi to some boiling water, dropped in a bouillon cube and some cubes of raw tofu. Needless to say, her face revealed the deficiencies. But to me, kimchi is a stand alone item and a great snack with a bowl of rice. My son and I can eat a whole jar in one sitting. The stuff is magic-versatile and healthy. It boldly flavors soda and ice cream.

Japanese Kimchi soda
freeze dried kimchi-looks unpretty to me but is it any good?

I’m no health nut but its roster of benefits is pleasing. (Kimchi is low in calories,low-fat, high in dietary fiber and has probiotics and a ton of Vitamins A, B, and C. Seoul National University conducted a study and claimed that chickens infected with the H5N1 virus, also called avian flu, recovered after eating food containing the same cultured bacteria found in kimchi. Though I can’t vouch for the source, I recently read somewhere that it is a good barrier to everything from cancer to Covid).

Supposedly NASA has freeze-dried it for their astronauts, which begs the questions: are there Korean astronauts and if so, I want to learn about them and if not, are there non-asian astronauts that love it so much they have lobbied for space kimchi? (Richard Branson/ Elon Musk, I’m talking to you). Most importantly, does freeze-dried kimchi stink up the cabin like the wet kind would? (And I thought peeing/bathroom use without anchor was the biggest problem with space travel!)

A while back, the above video went viral in South Korea and beyond of a woman hitting a man with a thick wad of uncut, long kimchi–see the above “kimchi slap.” The few seconds, replayed in slo-mo, packs a wallop-such unexpected insult to waste kimchi this way. Imagine the sting on the face and the scarlet markings left on the victim’s clothing. I am making a list in my head of the public figures who could be humbled by such a slap. Imagine all those white-shirted politicians—Ted, Donald, Rudy et al.

I thought to go with the post theme, I’d throw in an easy cucumber kimchi recipe suggested by my lovely Korean Cousin Leah who always miraculously has warm bulgogi, rice and kimchi ready for me when I come over. This really baffles me. I used to imagine she had a Willy Wonk-ian device ensuring a perpetual rotation of instantly ready homemade Korean food. (She told me it was a standard rice cooker).

https://www.koreanbapsang.com/oi-kimchi-cucumber-kimchi-and-blog/

Finally, I read about the spicy pickled garlic trend on TikTok and I had to try it out. It is a matter of adding three things that I definitely do not hate: Siracha, Korean chili flakes and dried thyme to a jar of pickled garlic.(I got a jar of pickled garlic on Amazon). Then you shake in the spices and close your eyes and pop one in your mouth, bracing for some mild to severe discomfort. I had hoped that pickled garlic was a very transformative experience–meaning I could eat it and forget the garlic association. But no my friends, it was a tiny shock to my mouth— akin to eating a raw wet garlic clove.(I imagine a bulk athlete popping these down in succession every morning with a side of steak and raw eggs). My verdict: unlike kimchi, this is not a stand alone item but could grow on me with some rice. It will sit in my fridge and possibly mold for months while I determine its merit. I cannot see myself becoming a super-fan of this odd snack unlike the portly middle aged man at the UES Gracie Mews diner whom I used to watch as he ordered many strangely large raw onion slices and ate them with a fork and knife–content and strangely dignified.

The end result

If you love garlic, skip this and try Korean garlic shoots. I ate them years ago in Seoul and fell in love. I think you can find them refrigerated at HMart in the Banchan (“Korean side dishes”) section near the kimchi etc. They taste like garlic but are more subtle!

Bye friends. Eat more Kimchi!!

My, it was cute before I added the face, drawing of cartoon kimchi that was at some point going to be a logo for my son’s since aborted blog. (He does his own thing now and that’s good).

4 sure fire ways to be more Korean

1) learn the language.

I just signed up for a class run by the the Korean Cultural Center of New York that is subsidized for Korean adoptees. Half of the regular price for us! Surely I will soon write about this very niche Zoom group. I imagine a group of oddballs similar to me, their faces in tile across my laptop. My Taiwanese friend Peggy always talks about the “Asian discount” that Asians give each other but this is the first time this particular Asian has cashed in (Though I realize it’s not really an Asian discount, it’s an Asian adoptee discount, but let’s not parse details!) I must remind myself that my middle-aged brain may no longer be the porous and nimble organ it once was. I say this remembering the futile Spanish class I took that recently left me scratching my head to remember the word for table in Spanish. (I basically got to furniture vocab in this class and stopped cold turkey). I grandiosely imagine myself strutting through Seoul—impressed locals scratching their heads and wondering if I am one of them.

2) connect with other Koreans.

My oldest childhood friend Dylan likes my Korean drama dolls and my new zeal for my identity. This sweet enthusiasm led her to introduce me to every Korean parent (about 2 of them) at a recent Central Park soccer bday party by saying “Soomee here is Korean too,” which got the two of us some stilted, polite-ish nods and little more. I blame it on the snooty/guarded parent-body as I keep meeting Koreans- old and young eager to connect with other Koreans. Let’s take my hair stylist in her late twenties maybe. She said she barely speaks Korean despite being raised by two Korean parents but made it clear, she’s a K-food aficionado. She told me to explore Flushing, Queens for its cute stores, teahouses and restaurants and spent ten minutes writing out her recommendations! See below for her recommendations. I can’t vouch for them but I’m sure they are edible!

My friend Dylan (one of the biggest “social connectors” I know) introduced me to her Korean colleague who is much younger than me but equally zealous since quarantine to connect with her Korean-ness including telling me about the above mentioned Korean language classes, sharing enthusiasm for the same Korean dramas and culture. She is half Korean and half Caucasian and passes for white whereas her sisters experience life differently as they look more Asian. She is currently working with a big team of Koreans on a documentary about a Korean adoptee looking for her identity.

Lastly, my wonderful family friend Susan is trying to use her pretty close connection to writer/musician Michelle Zaunner of Crying at H Mart and indie band Japanese Breakfast fame to get me an interview with her. Wish me luck! I’ve been busy making a life sized doll of her, because her autobiography largely about connecting to her Korean identity is so moving and well written, she’s a great musician and has enviable style. This challenging doll amuses my husband. (“Do you think she’ll be a little freaked out by that?” ). Not possible dear man. Who wouldn’t be happy getting a roughhewn, amateur doll of themselves!??

3) Watch Kdramas.

There are too many and a million lists online of the best ones so I won’t bother with a long list. Don’t just look at Netflix but check out viki.com if you are addicted like me. However, you have to pay a monthly fee for this site. You may have to quit your jobs to keep up. These are two I have loved a lot this year:

a) Crash Landing on You ( already discussed in my No Nanook post)

b) Vincenzo

A lot of things to celebrate with this unique drama. Shallowly, I will begin with the beautiful main actor of course whose skin is alabaster and who wears priceless, imposing watches on his thin wrists. He’s appealingly equal parts Korean and Italian—speaking Italian and Korean so melodically I have dozed off to sleep (once with a long embroidery needle perilously close to my head). Loved the fact he’s a consigliere who comes back to Korea and meets a motley crew of Koreans who become his family and for a while mistakenly call him “corn salad” instead of consigliere. The humor is fantastic and wacky. The bad guy is frothing at the mouth insane and of course, excuse my emphasis on appearance, hot. The resolution of the romance is, as custom in Korean dramas, long and drawn out in a way that American shows would usually not tolerate. But the part I loved most is the titular character is a killer fighter, and rare for Korean dramas (at least ones I have seen), he discusses the racism of Caucasian people against Asian men. In one scene he tells his lady friend who is impressed by his fighting skills that he’s had to learn to survive as a weak Asian man bullied by bigger white people. I keep thinking we all need a Vincenzo to protect us from the current violence against Asians. Just wait to hear the click of his lighter and watch the villains burn

4) Korean spa it up.

My kids’ bucket list for where to go when COVID is relegated to be no worse than the flu is Spa Castle, the Queens warehouse Korean spa. (To my friends haunted by our group visit there pre-kids who no doubt shudder at the memory of the throngs of children in small quarters, skip this activity). As it may be a bit longer until we feel safe to mingle in densely populated saunas. we are planning a “Korean spa day” at home. (Unlike most spas, there will be no middle aged women in underwear scrubbing us so hard we are newborn pink).

a) putting rosemary, lemongrass and other herbs in a linen.net pouch and putting it in bathtub. So refreshing. I experienced this once at a Korean spa in Seoul and it was so relaxing. My lame little tub will have to suffice.

b)) Ah dark spots on one’s face. One joy of aging I’d like to eradicate. I’m going to try this online recipe i found for a Korean flour face mask to lighten my complexion. Supposedly Korean women use flour for their complexion. Ah-choo!

Mix a little flour in a container, then add a little milk and a little honey, until you form a paste. You run it over your face and let it act for about 15 minutes. Who knows what this will do?

c) Heat up your bathroom with a hot shower and close door. Sit on toilet. (This is where the experience starts failing perhaps). Feel the pores opening.

d)Make Sikhye, which is supposedly a popular drink in Korean spas in Korea. It’s supposed to be great for digestion. It’s made of water, malted barley flour, sugar and cooked rice. it’s refreshing after sitting in one of those hot caves i love in Korean spas. I’m cutting and pasting this recipe found online.

Sikhye (Shikhye). Korean sweet rice drink | MyKoreanKitchen.com

https://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/core/bridge3.447.1_en.html#goog_119371424

See below recipe I found online. I’ve cut and pasted it word by word because this is no cooking blog and it’s okay if I make it clear I have nothing to do with the below photos and words re this drink.

Tea Bagged Malted Barley Flour for Sikhye

“1. Put  the tea bagged malted barley flour, water, and cooked rice into a rice cooker pot. (Make sure you don’t over fill as it can boil over). Set the rice cooker to warm for 4 to 8 hours. (Don’t cook them. Just keep them warm.) I normally put these in my rice cooker late at night before I go to sleep and it’s ready for me in the morning (usually 7 hours later). The sign of readiness is when about 20 or so grains of rice float to the top.

Making Sikhye (Korean rice drink) with tea bagged malted barley flour in a rice cooker

If you don’t have a rice cooker, apparently you can use your oven. Keep it at the lowest temperature for 4 to 8 hours. The sign of readiness is the same as the rice cooker method above.

2. When it’s ready, remove the tea bags then pour the liquid over to a large pot. (If you want to make the rice to float when you serve, make sure you strain some rice while you’re pouring over the liquid. Rinse the rice in cold running water and move it to a separate container. Add some fresh water into the container.) Add the sugar into the large pot and boil it on high heat until the sugar dissolves (5 to 10 minutes). Cool down the drink then transfer it to the fridge to chill.

Making sikhye

3. To serve, pour the chilled sikhye into a cup. Scoop out some reserved rice from step 2. Add some pine nuts and/or dried jujube to garnish.” https://401320e0d608d7075bf87e421c380303.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

How to Make Sikhye (Korean sweet rice drink) | MyKoreanKitchen.com

https://401320e0d608d7075bf87e421c380303.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

e) Make nyang myeun noodles in a package at H-Mart. I’ve had this. It’s fantastic. I read Koreans eat them in spas, which sounds delightful after sitting in a hot cave. Of course i have a corresponding tale to tell.

These clear noodles in a clear pickley/slightly sweet broth are my best friend. I ate them for the first time in Seoul, never having had them in the USA. The first time I ever met my coworker Chris many years ago, we went to a Korean restaurant in Manhattan’s Korea Town during our lunch break and ordered this chilled soup, unaware that the person serving it should cut the infinitely long noodles with a scissor. Making small talk with Chris, a lovely new friend, I started choking on a rope of these clear noodles that I had elegantly scarfed down and had to start pulling them out of my mouth, fist over fist. Chris says he got up from his seat in a panic, prepared to Heimlich me. I survived without it. (Thank you adrenaline and quick hands!)

Such an appetizing intro to this tasty dish. Please for those uninitiated, give it a try! Not sure if these below need cutting or if that’s just a restaurant precaution but be warned!