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Potent Side Dish : Kimchi: The Spice of Life to Koreans

November 10, 1987|NICK B. WILLIAMS Jr. | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL, South Korea — "Nobody can make it like my mother," Kim Hong Yon boasted, his broad face warming in a smile on a nippy autumn afternoon.

Apple pie? Southern fried chicken? No, this is South Korea, and Kim was savoring the thought of his mother's fermented cabbage, one of hundreds of concoctions of pickled vegetables that the Koreans call kimchi .

"From king to beggar, every Korean has always eaten kimchi, " said Lee Hoon Sok, director of a Seoul museum dedicated to glorifying the humble dish. "Each has the same desire and cannot live without it."

Potent Concoction

His assistant, Joo Young Ha, put in: "You watch. Even young Koreans who go into Western restaurants and order cutlets or a hamburger, they order kimchi on the side."

Westerners usually recoil at the first whiff of a time-ripened kimchi --garlic and fermented fish are common ingredients. "It can get right rank, mate," a resident Australian businessman said. But the aroma lures Koreans like kids to a cookie jar.

In Seoul's suburban Karakdong district, mountains of big white Chinese cabbages and four-pound radishes were rising last week at the sprawling wholesale market of the government's Agricultural Products Corp. Kim Hong Yon, sales chief of the corporation's central cooperative and the son, he says, of the best kimchi- maker in Korea, had his mind on business.

It was the advent of kimjang , the season when mothers, sisters, wives and restaurateurs prepare the winter's kimchi. In the last weeks of November and the first of December, in households across the country, the slicing, dicing and spicing will begin.

4,000 Tons of Cabbage

In the week beginning Nov. 25, Kim predicted, more than 2,500 tons of radish and 4,000 tons of cabbage will move through his cooperative each day, and it handles just 8% of Seoul's total.

By mid-December, it all will have been cleaned, cut and stored in brown ceramic pots for the cold months ahead. There will be the unusual kimchis: dropwort and spinach, pomegranate and pumpkin; the fish- and meat-based kimchis: pollack and anchovy (a favorite in North Korea), pheasant and chicken; the water kimchis, delicate soups made with ginseng root, radish or cucumber.

None are cooked except the soft-radish kimchi, prepared especially for the elderly with poor teeth.

The king of the kimchis, according to museum official Joo, is kamdongjoh , a mixture of octopus, roe, abalone and cabbage, plus various spices. "Only two people alive can make it," Joo said. "They are old women, in their 70s, who came from wealthy families and live here in Seoul."

Although the appeal of kimchi has not declined, the art of preparing it is waning in modern Korea. Joo, who estimates conservatively that there are 200 varieties of kimchi, says that only about 10 are common to every household.

"Thirty or 40 years ago, prospective brides were expected to be able to prepare 36 kimchis, " he said, "and if they couldn't, they had to take lessons from the older women."

Thirty years ago, South Korea was just emerging from the war against the Communist North. The largely agricultural Korean Peninsula and its cities were in ruins. But life continued in the villages, and kimjang came at the end of each November.

Traditions Overwhelmed

In the last 20 years, however, an economic boom has brought enormous change to the cities, and Seoul, on the surface, now looks like any overgrown international capital. The traditions of kimchi are being overwhelmed.

At the big Midopa department store here, cabbage kimchi is sold in refrigerated vacuum bags. Other stores carry canned kimchi. Neither, said a salesgirl at Midopa, tastes like Mom's.

Furthermore, eating habits are changing. The fast pace and long hours of city life leave little time for food preparation. Like young office workers in the United States, Koreans just grab a quick bowl of instant noodles on their way out the door.

"I like kimchi, particularly with noodles," said a guest relations officer at Seoul's Chosun Hotel. "But I think it's mainly for the older generation."

And agricultural advances have lessened the importance of kimjang. The hilly Korean countryside glistens with plastic greenhouses that make possible year-round production of vegetables and daily preparation of kimchi . The fall cabbage harvest is no longer the one-and-only chance to prepare food for the winter, no longer a time when schools are shut down so that children can help with the kimjang.

Chinese Origins

Every culture has developed some method of preserving foods, usually using pickling brine or vinegar. When the process came to Korea is not known, but preservation was mentioned in Chinese literature more than 3,000 years ago, and the Korean word kimchi is apparently derived from the Chinese phrase for "preservation of vegetables."

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