Last weekend I turned a corner in my Korean food experience: I enjoyed Kimchi. I’ve been moving towards this for a while, but it took a Lunar New Year trip to Gwanju (“the rice bowl of Korea”) to seal my fate.
For the uninitiated, Kimchi is pickled cabbage made with chili and garlic that comes as part of the banchan or side dishes that complement every Korean meal. Around 1.5 million tones of the stuff is consumed here each year, and it forms an unavoidable part of the Korean diet.
Kimchi is more than a side dish however, it is the focus of some of the most bizarre national pride I’ve ever witnessed. I’m currently involved in a running argument with one of my classes who claim that Kimchi is a need as opposed to a want. When I counter that I managed to survive 25 years before I came to Korea they argue that that is because hey are Korean and I am Australian. At the more extreme end of the spectrum, when a girl posted a video on you tube in mentioning that she didn’t like Kimchi, she became the subject of a hate campaign that even a few nation newspapers weren’t above weighing in on.
So what’s the fuss all about? Pungent and fiery, Kimchi seems to leave most newcomers (including me) gagging for water and swearing away from the stuff. That said, there is something about it that creeps up on you. This might have to do with its omnipresence in virtually every eating establishment you care to visit – it's never further than a chopstick away and if your hungry the temptation is there to pick away at it - but the more Korean food I eat the more I become aware of its value as an ingredient: It adds fire to a bowl of soup and livens up a plate of fried rice to no end, and there are so many different varieties the chances are (as I did in Gwanju) sooner or later you’ll hit on one you like.
When I leave Korea for good I doubt I’ll miss Kimchi that much, but while I’m here I I can now at least enjoy the ride.