“How I learned to be a proper Korean wife” or….Kimchi 101

It all started with a craving.  Living in Germany for once in my life I was not without easily accessible quantities of kimchi.  This in and of itself was a serious hardship, but more alarming was that without kimchi, I couldn’t make – kimchi chigae.  Comfort food is a strange thing.  To some it’s mac & cheese or mashed potatoes.  The taste of home comes in a variety of packages.  For my German roommate it was spaghetti with butter and ketchup.  Comfort for me came wrapped up in the biggest clash of culinary sensibilities: a steaming, deliciously pungent bowl of kimchi chigae  and a Big Mac.

Food associations are strong and unshakable, as the brilliant marketers for good old McDonalds can attest.  As any one of my friends back in L.A. would confirm, I am not someone who has willingly eaten from the golden arches in years.  My organic, home-made, farmer’s market loving nature had some serious issues with the kind of processed garbage that Ronald McDonald thankfully was no longer super sizing, but thousands of miles from “home,” lost in a bewildering foreign land without strong social networks or close friends and having seriously OD’d on the notion of Abendbrot (I could not eat any more slices of schwarzbrot, cheese & wurst with the prerequisite cut up cucumber!), Ronald became a reminder of pleasant childhood memories.  Happy meals eaten during school field trips, deep fried apple pies and caramel sundaes, packages of the Hamburglar cookies…remember those?  Big Macs were a special treat not often allowed by my notoriously health conscious mother and they are still imbedded in some far recess of my brain to trigger inexplicable feelings of warmth and security desperately needed that first long winter spent alone in Deutschland.

It’s the same way I feel about kimchi chigae.  Call it my identity split.  My American side sometimes just needs a dose of that “special sauce” in the same way the Korean gal in me needs her kimchi chigae.  But although those cravings for Big Macs eventually dissipated as I acclimated to my new life situation, the desire for kimchi chigae refused to die.  It was always my favorite meal growing up.  So odoriferous my mother cooked it in the garage, the pungent fumes drifting out towards the sidewalk would make my American friends curl their noses in dismay…was that a dead animal in our garage?  I’d pretend I didn’t hear them and for once be back home right on time for dinner.

So, what was a girl to do?  The question of a Big Mac was easily solved.   Globalization makes it possible to find a McDonalds anytime you’re jonesing for the crap they offer, (I will concede that sometimes a fresh batch of their fries with ketchup is just…dare I say, deelish?) The kimchi chigae though, now that posed a big problem.  The few Korean establishments I’d found in Berlin rarely offered it, and when they did, it was a watered down, tasteless version lacking any of the penetrating zing of a proper chigae.  This was seriously unacceptable.  There was only one thing to do…make my own.

Since the only way to make a proper kimchi chigae is to first have suitably fermented kimchi, it meant that I needed to start from the very beginning, a very good place to start.  This fräulein needed to make herself some kimchi!  Now that was something I’d never needed to make before.  Why bother when a huge bottle could be had 24-7 at several large Korean markets in L.A. or a homemade version could be pinched off of my aunt or mother. Once I had an available amount, I’d just whip myself a batch of chigae once the cabbage had gotten a little too salacious for normal ingestion.  The precise timing in which to make the perfect chigae from fermented kimchi could be an art in and of itself.  A fresh batch of kimchi just doesn’t have the right toe curling power, but wait until it’s gone too far and even a blowhard has a hard time digesting the sour, spicy mass. It’s reached proper maturation when you open a jar and the ensuing odor makes your eyes smart just a tiny leeetle bit and you’re not sure if it’s the  kimchi or  if you just passed gas.

Missing Korean food was not something I had accounted for when moving to Berlin.  Sure it was something I ate back in L.A., but to be honest, I took it for granted.  I could eat it whenever I wanted, so why bother eating it all the time?  Those first endlessly grey months in Germany,  I would rue the day I ever casually drove past a BCD Tofu House.  My yearly visits back home now are filled with days of Korean bbq; accelerating inhalations of suhlung tang, daenjang chigae, kimbap, yookgejang, soon dubu, tansooyeuk, until my pants get uncomfortably snug and I consider slowing down consumption, only to think about the months and months of deprivation ahead and say- fuck it! and undo the button imprinting itself onto my increasing belly.   Ahhh mah-shee-da!

So there was only one thing to do.  I gave my mother a heart attack by asking her to teach me how to make kimchi my first visit back to the States.  “Have you met a good Korean man?” were the first words out of her mouth.  Apparently, the only thing that could possibly motivate me to want to make kimchi was in preparation of being a good Korean wife…*eye roll*… I had to set the record straight. (do you KNOW what its like dating in Germany where the notion of flirting is asking you how you made the gravy after waiting 3 months before even thinking about asking you on a date?!?! )  She tried to hide her disappointment, but chirked up with the idea that by teaching me kimchi, perhaps…perhaps…it would improve my chances of finding the perfect Korean doctor, lawyer or supremely successful business man, or if need be and under extreme duress (since I wasn’t getting any younger ; )) settling for the notion of a non-Korean, albeit only a non-Korean doctor, lawyer, or even more supremely successful business man, and as long as they were only white non-Korean men, preferably American because Europeans always have mistresses according to her friend who lived in Paris….Chinese was acceptable too, but under no circumstances Japanese!

Since getting into my color blind international dating choices would have given her a serious ulcer if not a real heart attack, we just moved onto the kimchi tutorial.  Now there are as many varieties of kimchi as there are types of bread in Germany, whether you crave mouth burning fierceness or just a touch of the piquant, to cool summertime refreshing.  Everyone will probably tell you their mother’s version is the best, and who am I to argue…it probably is.  Something that gets served with pretty much every meal, every Korean child has eaten kimchi from the moment they can handle solid food.  My mother would wash a piece off in a glass of water and cut it up into our rice porridge.  I think by the time I was 5 I stopped “washing” my kimchi and just ate it straight up from the jar.  The mouth of fire has had a long time to germinate!

This is my version of a basic nappa cabbage kimchi, tweaked after years of living in Berlin and also dealing with busy people and busy schedules that may not have the energy or time to do something 100% “traditional.”  I think cooking is a fluid representation of where and when you live and being in Germany has obviously presented some obstacles.  Ingredients are not always easily come by and sometimes impossible to find, so Fräulein Kimchi’s approach is to find what works in the environment you’re living in.  There are no rules!

Fräulein Kimchi’s Kimchi recipe, to be used liberally as you please.

1 Nappa Cabbage (Chinakohl),

chinakohl at a street market
chinakohl sold on the streets

cut into small pieces (I usually cut it into about 2”x 2” slices, but whatever size you want is fine)

2 carrots julienned

2 bunches of green onions, cut into about 2” strips

1 or 2 apples, peeled and thinly sliced (*optional- I like to add apples which adds a nice crisp contrast to the cabbage, but this is not a really “traditional” ingredient so be prepared to face the ire of some die hard Koreans who may eat your kimchi. Just send them to Fräulein Kimchi if they give you any cheek)

1/2 daikon radish, peeled and sliced into thin rounds and then quartered (I prefer to use the Korean radish, which is called “mu”and has a spicier taste than daikon, but it’s not available in Germany…yet)

freshly minced garlic

Garlic, 6-7 cloves, peeled and crushed

Ginger, 1 tablespoon finely minced

Sea salt, 2-5 tablespoons per cabbage (my aunt swears that the type of salt you use influences the taste of the kimchi.  Don’t use the super high end gourmet sea salt though since you will need a lot of salt.  Large bags of sea salt can usually be found fairly cheaply at most asian markets)

Korean chili powder “Kochugaru”  (while it’s best to use Korean chili powder, if it’s not available in your area, you “can” use a different kind of chili powder.

kochugaru at it's finest
kochugaru at it’s finest

Be sure to experiment with amounts though, as Korean chili powder has a more mellow heat to it that necessitates using quite a bit when making kimchi.  Other chili powders may pack more heat so take caution! Also, its best if you use Korean chili powder that has been produced in Korea and not China.  Look for a package that has a bright red color to it, which signifies freshness.  If it’s made in China and is neon bright though, it’s probably been dyed synthetically! Avoid!  To maintain freshness of the chili powder, keep it in your freezer).

Fish sauce, about 2-3 tablespoons (For the best flavor I suggest you don’t buy the Thai anchovy fish sauces, but a Korean version.  It’s called Sand Lance Sauce.  This is also something you should add to your taste.  More fish sauce will give it a stronger flavor so see what you prefer.  To be super hardcore traditional, use the tiny salted shrimps that come in a jar.  So far its been impossible for me to find in Germany, but easily found in Korean supermarkets in America)

Pair of plastic gloves

directions: In a large bowl heavily salt the cabbage pieces. For a large cabbage it will take about 4-5 tablespoons, for a smaller one 3-4.  Let it sit for a minimum of an hour and up to anywhere from 2-3 hours.  The longer it stays in the salt, the more the cabbage breaks down and releases its water.  It also absorbs more salt and gets saltier, so experiment and see which texture and seasoning you prefer.  If you use a whole cabbage without cutting it up  then it needs to salt overnight. (This is the traditional way of making kimchi, but also requires much larger jars which aren’t easily come by in Berlin.  Its also more of a mess to cut up and serve once its fermented)

Wash off the salt from the cabbage and squeeze it dry.  Taste a piece; it should be slightly salty.  Place the cabbage in a large bowl and add the garlic, ginger, carrots, apples and radish.   Add the kochugaru a bit at a time. This is to your taste, the more kochugaru you use, the spicier it will be.  Add the fish sauce and green onions and mix thoroughly with your hands (make sure to wear the plastic gloves if you don’t want your hands reeking of garlic and fish for days!)  The final mixture shouldn’t be too dry, the chili powder should start to expand slightly from the moisture.  If it seems too dry once you’ve added all the ingredients, then you can add a tiny bit of water to loosen it up.

Gather some clean empty jars and start to bottle.  As you spoon in the fresh kimchi make sure you press it down firmly into the bottom of the jar.  There should be no space or air between the layers and a little bit of liquid at the top of the jar just covering the cabbage.  Leave some space on top as the kimchi will expand and create more liquid as it starts to ferment (packing the kimchi too tightly to the top of the lid can create a juicy, smelly explosion when you first try to open it).

Leave a jar out on the counter so that you can eat it within a day or two.  The rest of the jars will last for weeks if not months if properly stored in the fridge.  After a few weeks have gone by and the kimchi has gone sour…it’s time to make some chigae!

Some pictures of the finished product as I found them in Korea…enjoy!

traditional ceramic urns where kimchi would be stored for months
the richer you were, the larger the urns..these humongoids were found next to the house of a rich yangban

Day 2: “you’re lucky, Korean girls have the firmest breasts.”

Good morning! My second day in Korea and Julian is eloquently expounding on the differences between the cleavage he has known and loved before I’ve even had a chance to shake the sleep from my eyes.  Uhhh…must we have boobs before breakfast? Can I at least have a coffee first?   I mean, we’ve always had an open friendship.  It’s the one thing I’ve always loved about Julian.  We can, and do, pretty much talk about anything.  Ever since a rather awkward and unsuccessful attempt at seducing me in a Motel 8 on our way to camping out in Havasupai years ago, I was impressed that he was able to shake off rejection so easily and we continued on to have what is still one of my most memorable camping trips to date.   He’s like a younger brother that I can pick on, and also be my own unvarnished self with.  But, I think in this case, having met one of his recent conquests the night before…I felt fiercely protective for womankind.  Who was this bastard trying to sleep his way though Korea!  I really let him have it over breakfast, (I am woman, hear me roar!) which was incidentally delicious- the breakfast that is…actually the roaring felt good too.

Champong– a hot, garlicky seafood broth with noodles, vegetables and some fresh octopus and shrimp

Mandu– the Korean version of dumpings.. this variation was filled with ground meat, glass noodles, vegetables and yummily pan-fried.  Dipped in a sauce made of soy, vinegar, scallions and toasted sesame seeds.

Champong is like manna from heaven when you are nursing a hangover.  I wasn’t exactly hung-over, but with the combination of soju, jetlag, ear infection, loopy pain-medication and a slow seething resentment over the idea of women as disposable sex toys, I needed a shot of soothingly spicy soup to get through the day.

We ended up at a teahouse in Ga-chang that afternoon.  Julian had befriended this older Korean woman who owned the establishment.  She seemed to enjoy speaking Korean with an American, something I am now assuming doesn’t happen so often.  Most of the foreigners who make Korea their home never seem to bother with learning the language as most Koreans are eager to practice and speak English. (It’s a matter of pride and status to be able to speak English here, so even when communication breakdowns occur because of language barriers, it’s usually the Korean who will assume the guilt for not having studied English hard enough.)  At the teahouse, she served us a delicious cold tea made of homemade plum syrup and garnished with dried dates and the freshest pine nuts I had ever tasted.  Afterwards, Julian and I enjoyed a Chinese influenced tea ceremony with Puer tea.

It was on the drive back to Daegu that Julian’s back really started giving him some trouble.  It may have been stress Rainy day in Daegufrom our argument.  I may have called him a man-whore… We drove into an orthopedic clinic where shot in the ass #2 took place.  While the pain medication kicked in, we headed up into the district near the university to meet up with his new girlfriend.   More street food was consumed along the way, as it would be a few hours before dinner.  To our dismay, gizzards on a stick-man was not there.  I tried a few pieces of sweet potato & octopus tempura and fried chicken on a stick covered in a sweet and spicy glaze.  Delish!  Street food is amazingly cheap here.  A few skewers of assorted goodies, plus several pieces of tempura costs only a few dollars.  It’s a good thing I don’t eat like this everyday though, or even expandable waistbands would do me no good!

Seven Monkeys 24-7

Turns out that Julian’s girlfriend had some homework to do before she could join us for dinner, so we went to the Seven Monkeys, a local coffee shop.  It was a familiar atmosphere one would find near any college town.  Comfy chairs, tables, students studying or talking with friends.  The coffee was decent and the atmosphere nice.  Julian and I enjoyed our lattes in silence.  There had been an undercurrent of animosity growing in me ever since the boob incident that morning.  I was trying to let it go, but the feminist in me was raging.  Compiled with the fact that, from what I could see…relationships, sex, ideas of self worth and self esteem as a woman in a largely patriarchal society seemed to be something that your average nice girl was not well prepared to navigate in Korean culture, I couldn’t help but feel, that on some level, these foreign men were coming here, and either consciously or not, taking advantage of the system.

I know from my own experience, having somewhat conservative traditional parents, that the idea of having an independent sense of self as a woman is just not really acknowledged.  You are as good as the man you are with. I’ve observed this fact in my mother, and amongst her contemporaries.  Now I’ve always had a strong streak of rebellion and- don’t tell me what I can’t do, because I’ll do it! that never let me accept that ideal.  I hated being told that I shouldn’t do something just because I was a girl.  Don’t run, don’t scream, don’t be too strong.  One of my proudest grade school moments was beating up our neighborhood bully with a strong kick to his balls while my best friend, an Italian-American boy whose mom was dating a Chicago Mafioso type and another scrawny boy from the neighborhood cowered behind me.  They were both too chicken to confront the meathead, but there was no way in hell I was letting him continue to terrorize us.  But maybe I had the advantage of growing up in a westernized culture.  My mom could be telling me one thing, but in the books I was reading (Little House on the Prairie, Nancy Drew, Wonderwoman!) I was gathering ideas of what it meant to be a smart and independent gal.

But what about the girls growing up in Korea today?  I can already see that the standard for beauty and femininity is to be “weak.” These young girls who whine and clutch at their boyfriends when they are climbing one flight of stairs because it’s “too hard.” Having their boyfriends carry their purses because it’s “too heavy.”  Muscles are thought of as masculine.  The ideal Korean girl is über thin, with no muscle tone to be seen anywhere, and so “delicate” that they can’t be bothered to carry their own purses, umbrellas or shopping bags.  It’s not a place I would fit well into.  I’ve always been more tomboy than girl.  And my legs actually have muscles from running a marathon and hiking up mountains.

I’m feeling contrary for all sorts of reasons.  Julian has been pounding me pretty hard with all his gripes about Koreans and living in Korea.  It’s like he’s forgotten that, hey..guess what? I’m Korean! (he does admit later that he often forgets that I’m anything but American.) I know that most of the time I relate more to my American side, but I am realizing  that there is this deep hidden part of me that feels Korean adter all.  To be honest, I feel like I’ve been given the best of both worlds.  I can see them both for the flaws and strengths that they have, and choose what fits for me.  I’m feeling angry and…again strangely protective for my fellow Koreans.  How dare he complain about anything! He chose to live here.  It’s so weird, but a lot of his complaints could be similar to ones I have had at one time or another with adjusting to life in Germany. The staring, the lack of comprehension: he- how an American could possibly speak korean, me- how an asian could be so fluent in english and act so “western.”  the idiosyncrasies that drive one batty in the stressful early days of adjusting and learning about life in a new culture.  I think what I found strange was that, its been such a long time since he’s moved.  To still have such strong unresolved feelings of frustration for the culture you live in..makes me wonder:  Is Korean society really that closed, or is he just overly sensitive?  Maybe a bit of both?  But, I am feeling caught in the middle.  This is my first trip back to Korea as an adult.  I want to have an unvarnished experience, but maybe that’s not going to be possible?

Julian’s girlfriend finally shows up and we head to Zzim, a place that serves a chicken dish that is typical for the An-dong region of Korea.  A place I will be visiting later in the week with Julian.  Zzim-dak comes in a large plate with a thick spicy sauce and Korean glass noodles.

enjoying Zzim-dak at Zzim

My favorite part of the dish are the pieces of potato that are tucked away under the noodles.  Soft and steaming, they absorb the flavor of the sauce perfectly.  To cool off the burning tongue there is a bowl of chilled “mool-kimchi” (which literally means- water kimchi.)  It is a variation of kimchi that is made with white radish and is served chilled in the pickling broth, which is both slightly sweet and tart.  It’s a refreshing banchan and one of my summertime favorites.  Definitely a recipe I will be bringing back to Berlin.

I’m crashing but we decide to have one beer at Sugar Joes, an American style bar that Julian works at on the weekends.  Run by a Korean woman and her Canadian husband, Sugar Joes emulates any typical grunge bar you would find in a college town.  Loud live bands on the weekends, questionably strong cocktails, boisterous American voices, greasy but delicious bar food. The nice assortment of free cigarettes, gum, and ladies feminine products in the bathroom though, would speak otherwise.  Korea, if nothing else, is completely service-oriented.  Not only do they give you service with a smile, they’ll also deliver, wrap and pack it, carry it, change it, order it, and give you a little shoulder massage to boot- no tip necessary.

Beer & Cigarettes, must haves for any evening out in Korea