The Art of Kimchi
Across the provinces of both North Korea and South Korea, there are striking regional differences in the kimchis one eats in homes and restaurants. As a general rule, kimchi gets saltier and more pungent as you travel from north to south across the Korean peninsula. This makes sense, because in the north the climate is cooler, and it's therefore always been easier to preserve vegetables without heavily salting them and fermenting them for long periods.
On both countries' coasts, kimchi is often made with a mixture of vegetables and fresh seafood like oysters and pollack. Farther inland, in provinces with more farms, kimchis made from eggplant, spring onions, and sesame leaves are popular. In mountainous areas, like the inland parts of Kangwon-do Province, in the peninsula's center, cooks make use of ingredients that can be foraged from the forests, like acorns and arrowroot.
Of all these regional variations, the most renowned kimchis come from Korea's three traditional culinary capitals: Gaesong, in what is now North Korea; Jeonju, in the south; and Seoul, more or less right in the middle of the peninsula. Gaesong, which was for centuries the Korean capital, is famous for subtle, nuanced flavors and lightly braised meats and seafood; cooks there have long favored delicate water kimchis made from vegetables steeped in beef broth. Because it's nearly impossible to get into Communist North Korea these days, I've never been able to visit Gaesong, but I have had Gaesong-style food in Seoul. There, at the restaurant Gaesong House, I had a deliciously sophisticated kimchis made of octopus, pine nuts, and chiles wrapped in cabbage leaves.
Jeonju, on the other hand, is within South Korea, a four-hour drive from Seoul. Many chefs and restaurateurs in Korea claim a connection to Jeolla-do, the province of which Jeonju is the capital. The region is the birthplace of some of the most extravagant cuisine—and kimchi—in all Korea. The style of cooking there still bears the indelible stamp of the aristocratic Lee clan, which established itself there in 1392. In the city of Jeonju in particular, foods are more complex than anywhere else in the country, and meals are commonly accompanied by at least a dozen side dishes. The hot, vibrant kimchis of Jeolla-do feature ingredients ranging from plum juice and pears to chestnuts and sweet potatoes.
On a recent trip to Jeolla-do Province, I visited Bitgoeul Luchia Traditional Food, a kimchi factory owned by Eun-sook Kim, a 58-year-old grandmother and former housewife who makes what I'd been told is Korea's most exquisite packaged kimchi, in some 20 different varieties. What distinguishes Eun-sook's kimchi from other commercial kimchis is that she and the eight workers she employs, all women of about her age, mix the ingredients by hand.
There's a word in the Korean language, sonmat, that translates roughly as taste of hands; it denotes an elusive but essential element of the country's traditional foodways. For Koreans, eating and cooking are hands-on experiences, and real kimchi, Eun-sook told me, has qualities that can't be produced by machines or conferred by utensils. The kimchis Eun-sook invited me to taste, especially one made with mustard greens and a sour-spicy one made with tangerines and Chinese pepper, were indeed extraordinary. They more than lived up to the province's reputation for sumptuous and intensely flavorful food.
Another highlight of any trip to Jeolla-do is a visit to a restaurant in Jeonju called Gajok Hwaeguan. The chef and owner, a 72-year-old woman named Nyeon-yim Kim, is famous for her kimchi and for her version of bibimbap: stir-fried beef served in a hot stone bowl with rice, stir-fried zucchini, spinach, pickled burdock root, and bellflower stems and crowned with ribbons of julienned omelette. When I first walked into the place, I wasn't quite sure what to make of the fluorescent lit, cafeteria-like dining room packed with young couples, old people, children, and some monks from a nearby Buddhist monastery. But when the food arrived I immediately recognized the Jeonju-style excess I'd heard so much about. The banquet of side dishes that came with my bibimbap was jaw dropping: billowing clouds of egg custard, pickled raw beef with pears, seafood fritters, and a parade of remarkable kimchis. There was one tempered with slivers of sweet potato and chestnuts carved into tiny flower shapes. The starchy ingredients gave the kimchi a mellow, layered flavor that was miles away from that of the assertive versions I'd had before.
Cooks in Seoul, the last of Korea's three traditional culinary capitals and the center of commerce on the peninsula for centuries, have long benefited from a steady and terrifically varied supply of ingredients, most of which, at one point or another, have been made into kimchi. Still, I think my memories of the city will always be bound up in the flavor and fragrance of cabbage during the season of kimjang.
On the final day of kimchi making at Yeong-ae Kim's apartment in Seoul last autumn, Yeong-ae prepared lunch for me and her children. She brought out a few different kimchis she'd been keeping in the fridge. Last year's paechu kimchi, which she cut apart with scissors, had a robust flavor and a pleasantly crisp texture. But it was her two-year-old paechu kimchi, which she steamed along with mackerel for our lunch, that was the star. It was as rich, gamy, and funky as any I've tasted.
We also sampled some of the kimchi that Yeong-ae had made that morning. "There is nothing better than the taste of kimchi on the day it's made," Jeong-eun said, "because you can have it only once a year." Yeong-ae, who doesn't speak English, gestured for me to open my mouth. She picked up a sliver of the cabbage's heart between her fingers and popped it onto my tongue. It tasted of the Korean soil, was bracing, like the cold Korean air, and was even more delicious coming directly from a mother's hand.