Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish of spicy fermented cabbage and radish. (Mike Coppola/AFP/Getty Images)
SEOUL, South Korea — Most of us associate the spread of Korean culture across much of Asia, and now Europe and North America, with catchy pop tunes and improbable TV drama plot lines. Less well-known is the third member of the "Korean Wave" triumvirate — the country's bold and colorful cuisine.
Thailand and Japan have proved that gastro-diplomacy can go a long way toward educating people and their palates in the history, culture and aesthetics of a nation's cuisine. Now South Korea's government has plowed huge sums into bringing bibimbap, japchae and samgyeopsal to the attention of adventurous epicureans thousands of miles from Seoul and Busan.
Any primer on Korean cuisine has to begin with kimchi. It packs a pungent whiff that has a habit of lingering sometime after it has outlived its welcome, but once acquired, the taste for spicy pickled cabbage is rarely lost. No Korean meal is complete without it, either as an ingredient in the main dish, or as part of a medley of side dishes called banchan.
"Kimchi is absolutely central," says Joe McPherson, the American founder of ZenKimchi, South Korea's longest-running English-language food blog. "It is to Korean food what fries are to steak, or mash to bangers."
With roots said to go back well over two millennia, kimchi is perhaps the closest any country gets to a culinary national obsession. According to one survey, South Koreans much their way through more than 1.5 million tons of kimchi a year — or 12 percent of each adult's daily food intake.
It can be eaten in the earliest stages of fermentation as a light, crunchy snack, or left to "fizz" in compartmentalized fridges that many Koreans use to keep different types of kimchi at their optimum temperature, and to prevent its smell from tainting other food.
Aficionados swear by its vigor-imparting properties, a claim supported by "Health" magazine, which included kimchi in its list of the world's five healthiest foods. It is rich in vitamins, helps digestion and is said to ward of some cancers, although overconsumption has been blamed for high rates of gastric cancer among South Koreans. At the height of the Asian SARS crisis in 2003, a group of South Korean researchers even claimed kimchi was an effective antidote.
There are more than 200 varieties of the stuff, from the crisp, lightly salted type found in North Korea to the fish-sauce-heavy versions popular on the southern tip of the peninsula, according to Kim Hye Jin, a chef at O'ngo Food Communications, a cooking school that also organizes food tours of Seoul.
"We spend the whole year preparing to make kimchi," says Kim, whose mother typically pickles 80 heads of cabbage a year. "It's all about sourcing the right chili powder and good-quality fish sauce."
But Korean adulation of the humble Napa cabbage, the most popular vegetable used in kimchi, occasionally comes with nationalistic overtones.
In 1996, South Korea denounced Japan's version of the dish a fake, and demanded that its stop marketing it as "kimuchi." In 2010, a poor Napa cabbage harvest sent kimchi prices soaring, prompting one newspaper to describe the shortage of homegrown vegetables as a "once in a century crisis." Only this year, the dish was the cause of friction with Chinese netizens after South Korea lobbied Codex, the international food standards agency, to change the official name of its main ingredient from "Chinese cabbage" to "kimchi cabbage."
Just as sushi barely scratches the surface of the Japanese gastronomic miscellany, kimchi is merely the hub of a vibrant food culture that ranges from multiple-course royal court cuisine to ddeokbokki, a popular rice-cake snack often eaten on the hoof.
Beyond its home turf, Korean food has made its biggest impact in other parts of Asia and North America. New combinations dreamed up for the US market include kimchi quesadillas, burgers cooked bulgogi style, and tacos filled with barbecued meat — a pioneering dish that helped the South Korean chef Roy Choi to be named best new chef of 2010 for the US magazine "Food and Wine."
During his trips back to the US, McPherson has been surprised to find that — the addition of tacos aside —distance has not dulled the authenticity of the food that now consumes almost his every waking moment in his adopted home Seoul. "Koreans are often accused of being insular," he says, "But that also means they've retained their traditional cooking techniques. It's authentic; it has a history."
But South Korea's official marketing strategy, he adds, is in need of an overhaul. "The problem with government campaigns is that they are like aristocrats marketing to aristocrats," he says. "They arrange expensive gala dinners for US senators and serve high-class royal cuisine, the stuff that ordinary Koreans don't eat. And they do this in the middle of a recession. I don't think the government needs to get involved at all — it's best left to immigrant populations, word of mouth and people's natural curiosity.
"You have to create excitement and promote a mood rather than just the product itself. Korean food involves new flavors and creates a sense of excitement — there's an emotional appeal. Americans like the bold flavors and the idea that it's healthy."
While the unmistakable aroma of marinated, barbecued meat wafts through the streets of LA and New York from fusion tacos trucks, other Americans, including state department officials and senators on Capitol Hill, were recently treated to a more rarefied version of Korea's cuisine at a promotional event. And during the London Olympics this summer, the discount retailer Homeplus — a joint venture involving Samsung and Tesco — will promote 150 types of Korean food at a Tesco store in southwest London, home to a large Korean expat population.
O'ngo school's president, Jia Choi, sees the popularity of Korean food growing in line with the South's growing economic clout, a route taken most recently by Japan. "There was a time when people thought eating raw fish was barbaric, but then Japan grew economically powerful, and now sushi is its representative dish," she says. "The same is happening with Korean food, although it's still not as popular as Chinese or Japanese cuisine.
"There's also a greater appreciation of the healthy qualities of fermented food, and that's helped dispel negative stereotypes about the Koreans just eating dogs."
McPherson, who cites grilled intestines and yukhoe steak tartare among his favorite dishes, confesses he didn't immediately take to Korean cuisine when he arrived in the country eight years ago. His epiphany came three months later. "I woke up one morning," he recalls, "and suddenly realized I was craving kimchi for breakfast."
Two quick and easy Korean recipes for the summer:
Spicy cucumber side dish (oi moochim) from Joe McPherson at ZenKimchi
1 cucumber, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 onion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 cup water
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon Korean chili powder (gochugaru)
1 teaspoon Korean pepper paste (gochujang)
1 teaspoon light corn syrup or honey
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds
1. Mix the cucumber with one teaspoon of sea salt and set aside.
2. Soak the onion slices with one tablespoon of rice vinegar and the water in the refrigerator for 20 minutes.
3. Rinse the salt off the cucumber and pat off the excess water.
4. Mix the garlic, chili powder, pepper paste, corn syrup or honey, and teaspoon of rice vinegar in a bowl.
5. Remove the onions from the water and add them to the dressing along with the cucumbers and toss.
6. Serve chilled.
Kimchi recipe from O'ngo Food Communications
One quarter of Napa cabbage soaked in salted water [brine] for 6-7 hours
100g daikon radish
5 tablespoons chili powder
20g shrimp sauce
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon minced ginger
1 tablespoon sugar
1. Julienne the radish and cut scallions into 3-centimeter slivers.
2. Color the radish with chili powder and thoroughly mix in the spring onions along with all of the other ingredients.
3. Place the cabbage in a shallow tray with the stuffing. Starting with the outer leaves and working inwards, insert the stuffing between the leaves, smearing it generously on each leaf.
4. Tightly press the leaves together into a bundle, transfer it to a container and leave to ferment in a refrigerator for anything from a few hours to several months, according to taste.