Last week I had the opportunity to duck out of school early for an awesome “field trip”. Accompanied by a few other english teachers from my area, we were bused down to Suwon for an afternoon of kimchi (김 치) making and other cultural bits and pieces.
After a toasty hour long bus ride to my old neck of the woods, we arrived at Poh-Gi Kimchi Factory. We watched a quick little video on the company and what an integral part of Korea kimchi is (but I live here, I don’t need to be convinced). The best sound bite from the poorly translated video was ‘Korea is kimchi!’ I love it. After the video we had a demonstration from an ajumma kimchi master. We crowded around her table and watched her slice all the right veggies, scoop all the right flavors and mix them altogether with expert hands. This lady was a pro. She was even born on November 22nd, which is National Kimchi Day in Korea!She showed us all the dozen or so ingredients that made the mix and I guess this is how everyone has different recipes, by using slight variations. Some put more or less, depending on personal taste. After making her concoction she individually went from person to person and popped a sample of the messy mix in our mouths. Like little birds in a nest she fed us. Priceless.
Over the last year or so my personal opinion of kimchi (김치) has wavered. Upon my arrival to Korea I loved it. I had no problem eating it with every meal and am convinced it kept me healthy for the most part of the winter. After a while though, strangely I just went off it. All of a sudden the kimchi was too strong or too vinegary and it no longer agreed with my palate. It couldn’t have been just the kimchi at my school, because no matter where I ate it, my love for it had seriously depreciated (white kimchi was excluded, as was kimchi jiggae, one of my favorite Korean soups). Luckily, over the past few months it has worked its way back into my good books. The new school I am at definitely makes a milder and much tastier version than my previous school, so that helps. Not to mention that well, I live in Korea, and as the video stated Korea is kimchi, so if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
Okay, so back to the task at hand. After a lovely demonstration and some delicious sampling, we were set off on our own. We actually did the Coles Notes version of making kimchi. We were more the finishing touch, connecting the cabbage with the rest of it. We had pre-soaked and salted cabbages and we just had to master the art of inserting the rest of the ingredients. I will attempt to list off what was in the concoction, but I am sure I’ll miss a few: red pepper paste and flakes, salt, sticky rice, sugar, fish oil, anchovies, garlic, and as for the veggies radish, onions, green onions, leeks, chives and some other leafy greens. We were shown to basically peel back the layers of cabbage and get as much of the mixture in between the leaves as possible. Once it was coated, you pressed it back into shape and tried to squeeze out all the air pockets to get out all the carbon dioxide and aid in the fermenting process. It was messy to do, but also quite satisfying. Even without participating in the whole process from beginning to end, I had a new appreciation for kimchi. It is a fine art. Once we were done, someone came around and took our quarter head of seasoned cabbage, and syphoned it into a bag (I some how got lucky and did 2 batches). By the time we were ready to leave a few hours later our kimchi was labeled and vaccum sealed, and it looked like we just plucked them off a grocery store shelf.
Once our kimchi was done, we headed off to the Poh-Gi factory. We got a birds eye view of the whole process and again, I had a new appreciation. I loved seeing the behind the scenes process that turns a plain cabbage into the kimchi that I consume everyday here. Here are some shots of the factory kimchi making process.
Next stop was a kimchi museum/information centre and it was so fascinating! Ok, you might not think a kimchi museum sounds like a rip roaring good time but it was really informative, I learned a lot. For instance, before the Korean War, kimchi was always white. During the war, the Japanese used pepper powder for an ingredient in tear gas. Eventually peppers were then used to Korea to grow and eat. They found there way into kimchi, thus evolving a whole new way to enjoy kimchi. You always hear how healthy it is, and although I knew part of it was true I also thought it was a lot of Korean national pride, but kimchi really is a wonder food. Without getting into all the scientific bits, the more you eat, the better it is. It is packed with vitamins and good bacteria and it has tons of health benefits. The Koreans are definitely on to something.
The museum also showcased the many different types of kimchi. The most popular are cabbage and radish I think, and one of my favorites is the white kimchi. Some of the others, in a mixture of Korean and English include cucumber kimchi, dried radish kimchi, yeolmoo, kkackdugi, chonggak, green onion, bosan, sugbacgi and a white/watery kimchi (named maximowiczia chinensis for the use of the five-flavored fruit, I think). Here are some pictures of the many different types.
After the museum me made deokk (떡) . Deokk is traditional rice cake (not like the kind we eat back home, the real kind) and eaten as dessert in Korea. One of the english teachers summed it up perfectly by calling it the ‘anti-dessert’. Some versions of deokk are nice when thay have sweet fillings, or are powdered with sugar. But overall, it is just a sticky, doughy version of rice. There was an awesome ajumma showing us how to make it. Part of the process is taking a mammoth sized hammer and with all your weight banging down on the sticky rice. She was amazing, with the strength of an ox, this lady was the jack of her trade. After pounding, still hot, the glutenous mass was cut in rows, sliced and then powdered for us to eat. It was nice to eat hot and fresh but definitely not a dessert food I crave for with my sweet tooth.
Next on the agenda was Korean Fashion 101. Guys (남자) and gals (여자) all got a turn at trying on hanbok (한복), Korean traditional clothing. I zoned in on an orange and black number (shocking, right?) and although it was beautiful, it was about12 inches too short and looked a little strange on me. Some of the women’s hanbok styles are so beautiful, and it was nice to get a chance to see them up close to appreciate all the details. So after a little photo shoot, we got out of costume and the afternoon started to wind down.
Last stop was for refueling. We sat around at the end of the day and sampled some more delicious and spicy kimchi from Poh-Gi, with a few other dishes to accompany it. Great ending to a fabulous day. Thanks for such a great opportunity!