Instead of normal class this past Friday, we went to a kimchi museum and cooking class for a cultural activity. I made kimchi from scratch two years ago in Seoul at the 김치박물관 in 인사동 but my kimchi taste was only ok that time. However, this kimchi that we just made was amazing. 예지 said it was the best kimchi she has every eaten in her life, which is a pretty big statement considering that she lives in LA Koreatown, has Korean parents, and ate Korean food at almost every meal growing up.
The woman who taught us how to make kimchi was incredibly kind and wore a 한복 (hanbok, Korean traditional dress) while handling the bright red 고추가루 (hot pepper powder) and other seasonings. That is very brave of her to wear because I think if anyone else wore that nice dress while dealing with kimchi juice we would be bound to stain ourselves.
The explanation started with how the cabbage is first placed in 소금물 (salt water) which is about 10% salinity. The salt comes from the west sea off of Korea, which is apparently known for their salt that is perfect for fermenting. In the past, the teacher explained, it was hard to get salt so families would share the 소금물. Once one family was done prepping their cabbage in the salt water, they would save it and bring the water to their neighbors who would then keep passing it along. There were some other facts she said about the salt water, but I could not get a full grasp on it because our entire class was taught in Korean.
After the cabbage is soaked multiple times in the salt water (five hours total), the salt should remain in the kimchi and the water will come out. Then it is time to prepare the spicy sauce/seasonings. Compared to my expectations, there are many diverse ingredients mixed with the 고추가루 (spicy red pepper powder) and it varies based on the type of kimchi you want to make, how long you intend to ferment it and what region you are from. 광주 (Gwangju) in 전라도 (Jeolla-do) is right next to the west sea, so people put in shrimp and anchovy powder/sauce. Along with other ingredients such as ginger, garlic, 찹쌀 (a kind of rice grain), it gives the kimchi an interesting taste that is all sweet, spicy, salty, 고소하다, and satisfying. Koreans call this indescribable, unique taste as “게미” (gae-mi).
The teacher also taught us that there are more than 400 kinds of kimchi in Korea, and not all of them are ferment vegetables. Some times you ferment seafood, which from my experience is actually quite delicious (but a very strong taste). Also kimchi is ranked as one of the top five healthiest foods in the world along with olive oil and greek yogurt. It supposedly helps fight against cancer and adult diseases and cleans out all of the bad bacteria in your gut.
We got to take our kimchi home, but since I left for Seoul right after class today it is at my friend, Riona’s, home family’s house. I will get it back on Monday and bring it to my host family to share with them at dinner. I figured no one would appreciate the smell of fermenting kimchi on the four hour bus ride from Gwangju to Seoul.
Then after our kimchi experience we went to 시내 (downtown 광주) to a restaurant called 여로. This restaurant had a total of seven tables, all on the ground, and they made their own alcohol in these giant plastic tubs. The owners were this old couple and you could tell this restaurant had been around for quite a while. For 8,000 won (about 8 US dollars) we got a feast of 해물전 (seafood pancakes), three different varieties of rice, a ton of 반찬s (side dishes), 국 (stew), and 되지 고기 (pork). Because the restaurant served very traditional Korean food in a very traditional style, you could tell that young people rarely if at all come to eat here.
They also had a basket of hot green peppers that you dip in fermented soy bean paste. I have eaten these in Korea and the U.S. quite a bit, but the one that I ate today in one mouth full was the spiciest thing I think I have ever eaten. My mouth was on FIRE, and no amount of barley tea or rice would cool it down. My eyes were watering and my face turned red, so of course my friends and teachers (who brought us to the restaurant) were very amused. I think I burned off all my tastebuds. Fortunately, the spicy taste subsided and my lips felt their normal again.