The Korean cuisine is widely considered by nutritionists to be one of the healthiest in the world. Of course, the first thing they immediately mention is kimchi which, by now, is widely known throughout the world. The kind most people know about is baechu kimchi, the one made with what is known as Chinese or napa cabbage, known in Australia as “wombat”, with a lot of chili pepper and other seasonings and ingredients. But there is much more to kimchi than fermented cabbage, and much more to the Korean cuisine than kimchi.
After four trips to Korea, I think I have still only scratched the surface of this cuisine. Still, in this segment I would like to share with you a little of what I have learned, which is already enough to be the chapter of a book, or a small cookbook in itself!
Let’s start with kimchi, since that’s where everybody begins. Since I arrived in September and didn’t leave until late October, I missed the primary kimchi-making time, which normally takes place after the first week in November. That is a mega-deal often involving entire families, even extended families or neighborhoods. The mother of my daughter-in-law normally makes baechu kimchi with 100 heads of napa cabbage she and her husband have organically grown themselves in the garden of their country home. They spend about a week together picking and cleaning the cabbage and making the kimchi together. The idea is to make enough baechu kimchi to last an entire year, until the following November. This means, though, that by September the supply of baechu kimchi is running really low. But there are at least 200 other forms of kimchi, according to a Seoulistic, a website I found explaining the history and different types of kimchi.
When I arrived, it was time to make summer kimchi, known as oi kimchi, made with cucumbers instead of napa cabbage. If you click on the link you can find a recipe explaining how it is made. I had already attended a kimchi workshop in Germany, where we made three kinds of kimchi, one of them with cucumbersh. My teacher, who has spent a lot of time in Korea, urged me before I left to try all the traditionally fermented things in Korea I could get onto my tongue! “A good place to try all of that is at a Buddhist temple”, she said. Dahae, my daughter-in-law, has an aunt who is a Buddhist nun, and her mother, Hanna, sister of one of the nuns and also a devout Buddhist, spends much of her helping out at the temple. I hit the jackpot when one day, Hanna said, “The nuns wanted to know if you’d like to help them make kimchi. They’ll be making the summer cucumber kimchi tomorrow. Would you like to help? Is the Prime Minister of Korea Korean? That was on my bucket list! But I didn’t want to push myself onto anyone, so didn’t know how I could try out fermented temple food. I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days there, making cucumber kimchi, watching them make two other kinds of kimchi, and eating their delicious, nutritious vegetarian temple food, which includes many fermented roots and greens I have never heard of. And then, over the next few weeks, to visit and watch them cook on several other occasions.
We made buckets full of cucumber kimchi, which the nuns shared with Hanna and others. Cucumber kimchi from the temple appeared every evening on the dinner table.
During my previous trip to Korea, I met Beomseok, my niece’s boyfriend. They have since broken up, but Beomseok and I have remained friends, calling each other nephew and auntie. Beomseok is a Protestant Christian from an entirely different background than Dahae with her Buddhist relatives. When I told him about making cucumber kimchi at the temple, he said, “Nancy, you are privileged to experience something very few people get the chance to have.”