On Food: I Crave Kimchi!
I was lying in bed reading and suddenly started thinking about Kimchi. It wasn’t like I was watching some Korean Drama or some news item about North or South Korea. It had nothing to do with what I was reading at the time. It was just in my head out of the blue, “Damn it has been forever since I’ve had kimchi”. I started running through just how long has it been since I last tasted it. For those not in the know, Kimchi is a delicious Korean dish of pickled and seasoned cabbage. That is the overly simple definition of it. Really, there is so much more to it than that. The process of preparing it is one of those things you hear about on travel shows or through friends who have traveled abroad. Cabbage, pickled, seasoned with soy, fish oil and other things I couldn’t begin to name, peppered and then buried in a clay pot in the earth for several months1. When it comes out it is pungent, powerful and so damn tasty. I utterly adore kimchi yet I haven’t had a good “Kimchi Bowl” in like 10 years.
This random thought of how long it has been since I had kimchi led to my mind wandering further away from what I was reading. It wandered to the memory of the first time I had kimchi. It wasn’t in a restaurant, it was, in of all places, boarding school. My first year of boarding school in fact. The thing about being sent away for my education was that every now and again, for those of us that lived close enough to school, we were allowed to go home for a weekend. This meant not only did you get to go home and enjoy those things that made you miss home in the first place but you also got to bring things back with you, like a conquering hero with the spoils of war. These spoils were usually food. Hell, on more than one occasion I brought back a box of chicken wings from my favorite deli and kept them in my Dorm Parent’s fridge along with a 12 pack of Coke2.
There was one weekend when one of the Korean boys in my dorm came back to school with kimchi his mother had sent back with him. Everyone in the dorm knew what it was the moment he unsealed the jar. Well everyone but me. I had never smelled such a thing before and even worse, I was actually at the other end of the dorm. The kimchi smelled sour and potent the closer I got to the room he was in. When I finally got to his room he was sitting there, eating a steaming bowl of stewed kimchi. I asked his roommate what the hell that was and told me the name of the dish and even explained how it was made. He encouraged me to try it, as the Korean boy’s mother made excellent kimchi, so I was assured3. I was reluctant at first but was egged on by both boys to give it a try. I was given a hunk of kimchi in a plastic bowl, cold kimchi fresh from the jar no less. I speared it with a fork and nervously bit into it. The kimchi burned my lips from the all the pepper. I had never had anything that hot in my life, especially something that hot that had been served cold. It was sour and hot. It was the first time I had any kind of food where the heat from a pepper actually overpowered the actual flavor of the spice it came from. Does that make sense?
It was the first time I had ever tried a food that actually gave me immediate pain and that was just on my lips. For what seemed like an eternity my lips and mouth were on fire. The odd part though was that my tongue wasn’t. The taste of the sour fermented cabbage clung to my taste buds. It was powerful, briny flavor and I actually liked it. It took me the rest of the night to get through my chunk of kimchi, as I nibbled on it the rest of the evening through study hall. Slowly my mouth adapted to the heat of the peppers and I was able to get their actual flavor. The more I ate, the more my mouth was able to process the flavors in my mouth and allow me to enjoy all the elements as one flavorful experience. It wasn’t my last experience that yer with kimchi, it became the thing I put in my ramen most often if my new found friend was willing to part with some his precious supply. It turns out I wasn’t the only guy that found himself with a kimchi addiction. The problem was, the pungent odor stunk up the whole damn dorm so bad that our head Dorm Parent put the kibosh on our kimchi soaked dreams, banning the stuff outright. It was even worse the next year as my Korean friend had left for a different school and the other Korean kids were not nearly as generous with their stocks of kimchi.
The last time I can clearly remember having kimchi was in 1999. I was in New York City in the part of Queens known as “Koreatown”. I was there to just skim through the local markets, see what bootleg movies I could find and grab a quick bite before heading to Manhatan to crash at friend’s place for the night4. The memory of where the place was is hazy, I can’t remember if I got the kimchi bowl with fish and prawns from a street vendor or a food court. I just remember sitting, eating and thinking that it had been too long since I had a bowl of kimchi. It was hot and spicy, the way I remembered it. It was a meal I was unable to rush through due to just how hot and spicy it was. The heat of the pepper permeated the fish and prawns, though the natural sweetness of both gave almost a balance to the rest of the meal. It was steaming hot and it had cost me like $6 with a hot cup of tea. The rest of the night my mouth was on fire but I savored it. It was flavor and heat I had missed since boarding school.
So here I am today, trying to get through that damned book and just randomly, I think of kimchi again. There have been many times I’ve had the chance to eat kimchi, but those times always seem to be at local Chinese buffets and honestly, I’m not trusting a Chinese buffet’s kimchi5, that’s just way to much of a gastronomical roll of he dice, especially since most Chinese buffet’s are questionable to begin with. But my mind still remembers that first cold, briny, peppered hunk of cabbage and how I nibbled on it all night long. I need to find some good kimchi in Toledo, Ohio. Let’s see if there is any out there that can get me excited!
1 One Korean friend of mine said his Mother had 3 year old kimchi, the prospect of which sounds like it would melt my stomach.
2 “Dorm Parents” are basically teachers that lived on Campus in the Dorms to prevent any Lord of the Flies type shit from going down.
3 And if you can’t trust a Korean kid’s white boy roommate, I ask you: Who can you trust?
4 All so we could spend 4 hours on a bus to Philadelphia to watch an ECW show and potentially die from heat exhaustion in the air condition-less ECW Arena.
5 Don’t even get me started on how it seems everyone in Ohio thinks the natural environment for Chinese food is a buffet. There is a severe lack of proper sit-down communal family style Chinese restaurants in Toledo. It makes this Chinese food loving New York Jew weep!