Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Plastic Kimchi

You know how when you’re young, you don’t think of your parents as real people? For a long time, I felt that way about Korean food. It wasn’t food in the way Malaysian nasi lemak is food or Oaxacan mole is food, something to be fascinated by. It was like air, something I didn’t notice until it was gone, when I realized I was truly living alone and no one was going to make Korean food for me.

Even worse, I realized I didn’t even know that much about Korean food. I would start to answer questions on Chowhound and then stop because I didn’t even know the right name for that whole-radish kimchi I like so much, the one that’s shaped like an elongated pear. (It’s 총각김치, chonggak kimchi!) I can’t identify half of my favorite 나물, namul, or vegetable 반찬, banchan—I just think of them all as “mountain vegetables.” Though I should be able to identify at least one; my mom was picking it off the ground in Fort Greene Park when she came to visit.

This is why I ended up peering at plastic kimchi last week at the Kimchi Field Museum on the second basement level of the COEX Mall. My mom and I had a hell of time finding it; the mall must be designed to make you lose direction and just shop until you get out. By the time we got there, her bad knee was acting up and so we sat down next to a rack of magazines and books and kimchi, found a very authoritative one written in Japanese, and started to flip through it together. My mom didn’t need to understand the text to explain everything to me with happy familiarity. It was like she was flipping through a family album, except instead of saying, “This is your crazy Second Uncle,” she was saying, “This is chonggak kimchi, a really delicious one, your aunt loves it. She always says, “Please make it for me until I die!”

The museum turned out to be small and fairly low-budget, with clearly some efforts towards interactivity, but with almost no effort to hire a fluent English speaker to do their translations. I learned more from my mother sitting with a Japanese-language kimchi cookbook in the front room. But if you don’t have a Korean mother, and especially if you enjoy looking at plastic food (hello, Sharon!), it’s not a bad way to spend an hour.

If nothing else, you will learn that there are hundreds of kinds of kimchi. That’s why it’s not quite accurate to describe kimchi simply as Korea’s national pickle—it just can’t be described in the singular. They can be made of napa cabbage or regular cabbage, cucumbers, green onions, eggplant, big radishes, small radishes, etc., etc. Even my mom saw types she had never tried, as specialties vary from region to region. My new kimchi cookbook divides its 105 recipes into “Refreshing Northern Kimchi, “Simple and Tasty Seoul Kimchi,” and “Intensely Flavored Southern Kimchi.” There’s some that are fiery red and others that are so mild, you’re supposed to drink the clear, sour juice with the cabbage.

Sadly, the kimchi museum has no samples, though the plastic kimchis do glisten in their glass cases. (Apparently, you can sample and even make kimchi on certain days--oops.) There’s an odd sort of closet where you can open doors and smell the key ingredients in kimchi, like ginger and garlic, but the intense national pride seems to have stopped at putting a dish of fish sauce or dried shrimp in one of the closets. (This is always a revelation I make to vegetarians with mixed emotions—nearly all kimchi includes some sort of seafood-derived ingredient.)

The exhibits also explain how kimchi is made, how it was traditionally buried in clay jars in the ground during the winter months, which would control the temperature and keep it from fermenting too quickly. Thus my ancestors ate vegetables through the winter and avoided scurvy. There’s also a funny but poorly translated dig at U.S. soldiers stationed in Korea during the war for stupidly thinking that Koreans were eating food straight out of the ground. Now, nearly all Koreans have special kimchi refrigerators that are colder than regular refrigerators for year-round kimchi preservation. We have one that’s almost twice the size of the washing machine, and my mom says it’s a small one.

Sadly, though, younger families rarely make their own kimchi. Sometimes, they’ll buy their kimchi in grocery stores, but as the change is recent, most still get to eat their mothers’ and mothers-in-law’s kimchi. The question, of course, is what will their children eat? I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder when I was young, and I yearned to live in a world where people canned and pickled and preserved things. I didn’t realize it was happening in my own home.

But I doubt Koreans will ever stop eating kimchi, no matter how trendy hamburgers and pizza get. My mom and I had a dinner today of rice, two kinds of kimchi, and kimchi stew. And they can always put it on their hamburgers and pizza! Koreans feel no fear in adding their favorite food to all their new favorite foods, as the wall of “kimchi foods” attests.

In any case, the Korean government seems to have funded a significant amount of research on the health benefits of kimchi, just in case you don’t like the taste of food, which you can read all about at the museum. It is an excellent source of vitamin C, though could it really help you lose weight? Apparently, people are already selling chile-laced nasal spray as a weight-loss aide.)

It’s a pity that the museum isn’t more exciting. Perhaps I was focused too much on the poor English translations, but given how central kimchi is to Korean life, the most likely audience would be foreigners, not Koreans. With my newfound enthusiasm and pride in Korean food, I can imagine a museum with truly rich exhibits on the science and the culture. I mean, pickles can be seriously exciting. And then their cross-cultural display could include more than weirdly chilling laboratory jars of sauerkraut and Filipino pickles.

But I can’t completely rag on the existing Kimchi Field Museum. After all, you can take pictures with a mannequin ready to feed you kimchi from her chopsticks!

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