SEOUL – No meal in Korea is complete if not accompanied by a dish of kimchi, a spicy fermented cabbage salad with a 3,000 year-history which has become emblematic of South Korean gastronomy.
So much so, the country even has a museum dedicated to kimchi, considered part of the “Korean DNA.”
At a time when its citizens are increasingly opting to buy kimchi from supermarkets instead of making it at home, Lee Ha Yeon, one of the five “Kimchi master chefs” so-named by the South Korean government, seeks to keep its value alive.
“For Koreans, it is like water, or the air we breathe. There is a kimchi dish at every moment of our lives, from weddings to funerals. Even during the harsh post-war years, it was never missing from the dining table,” Lee said at Seoul’s Kimchikan museum.
This museum, which celebrates Korean gastronomy and is located in the popular tourism neighborhood of Insadong, was opened in 1986 and offers Kimchi-centric interactive games and video art, and even classes by experts such as Lee on how to prepare the dish.
There are some 400 types of Kimchi across the Korean peninsula, although like other epicurean delights such as wine and cheese, it has countless variants.
“It is impossible to find two identical ones. The taste of kimchi varies from house to house, and is also influenced by the region (in Korea) it is prepared in,” recounts Lee.
This spicy salad, marinated in chili pepper, garlic, ginger, and plum sauce among other things, is also extremely popular in North Korea.
So deeply embedded is it in the Korean psyche, that people in this part of the world say “kimchi” when posing for a picture, just as those on the other side of the globe may exclaim “cheese.”
Lee, who has traveled to Britain, Italy and Vietnam to widen awareness of the dish, also swears by its health benefits.
She believes it is rich in probiotics, and adds “it is one of the healthiest dishes. I am a living example; at 58 now, I have never had a serious illness.”
In 2014, she was awarded the title of one of five “Kimchi master chefs” by Seoul authorities to reward her for her dedication to the country’s time-honored gastronomy, making her one of the “guardians” of this Korean recipe.
Lee says one of the biggest advantages of this fermented dish is that it can be preserved for months.
While traditionally made using napa cabbage, it can also be prepared with vegetables like cucumber or green bell peppers, or even served as a cold soup.
However, nearly all kimchi variants have a strong and characteristic smell; it even found mention in the 2014 Oscar-winning Hollywood production Birdman where Emma Stone’s character enters a flower shop run by an Asian, and suddenly bursts out saying “it all smells like fucking kimchi.”
The remark caused a furor in South Korea, where, according to Lee, “everyone, from the lay citizen to President Park Geun-hye” has kimchi on their tables.