When anyone mentions Korean cuisine, invariably they talk about Kimchi. This food, like no other, underpins the health-giving properties of Korean food and is the most important accompaniment to every meal in every household and restaurant across the peninsula. The nation is quite literally crazy about Kimchi and even the country’s first astronaut could not enter space without taking this (vacuum-packed) tangy cabbage delicacy with her! Kimchi was traditionally produced at the end of autumn, not long after the harvest, in a communal tradition called the Gimjang, during which large quantities of Kimchi were made in preparation for the winter months. This process was designated by UNESCO as a form of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013.
So why is Kimchi, and Korean food in general, considered to be so healthy? The answer lies in fermentation. Outside most traditional houses, known as Hanoks, one will normally find a number of onggi, which are large brown clay pots, filled with an assortment of fermented sauces and condiments: red bean paste, soy bean paste, soy sauce – all essential ingredients in the making of Korean dishes, and they have a traceable lineage dating back thousands of years. To quote the experts, as a biological phenomenon, fermentation refers to a metabolic process through which sugars are converted into acids. In food products, this typically means carbohydrates being broken down into lactic acid using yeasts and healthy bacteria, yielding a number of positive effects.
Kimchi has quite a following – even America’s First Lady Michelle Obama once shared her recipe, and celebrity chef Judy Joo (who recently opened the stylish Jinjuu restaurant on the fringes of London’s Soho) has created “Kimchi Mary” – her own take on the Bloody Mary. The curative benefits of the dish were highlighted as a possible reason why Asian SARS never reached Korean shores; whether that was in fact true or not, one must acknowledge the acclaim for this humble fermented cabbage.
If you eat Kimchi with Korea’s second most famous dish, Bibimbap, then one is well on the way to understanding an important part of Korea’s DNA. Bibimbap may appear to the uninitiated to be a simple dish of mixed rice, namul (seasoned vegetables and herbs) and gochujang (red pepper paste), but it has much greater resonance. Within Bibimbap, locally obtained bean sprouts are the main ingredient to be added to rice and then cooked in beef broth. Just before the rice is fully cooked, bean sprouts are mixed with the rice and then the other ingredients such as mung bean curd, raw beef and nuts are placed on top.
In choosing the ingredients, the colour is also considered carefully, according to traditional cosmology: each direction of the compass, the precise location of the diner and what season it happens to be are all indicated by the use of five basic colours, which are blue (and green), red, yellow, white and black. Blue symbolizes the east; yellow is the spot where one happens to be standing and also the earth; white signifies the west and autumn; and black is for north and winter. So it is no wonder that people used to believe that having a bowl of Bibimbap meant one was absorbing the energy of the universe.
Certainly the universe is taking note of Korean food, as eating this cuisine is on trend, flavorsome and above all, healthy!