Glorious international foodstuffs 5: kimchi




Last year, while I was back visiting my hometown of Peebles in Scotland, I was invited to my nieces’ school to give a talk about life in North Korea.  Wow.  There’s a sentence that, back in my youth, I never thought I would find myself writing.


The reason why I got invited was because the school’s Primary 6 had been studying about North Korea and one niece mentioned to the teacher that her Uncle Ian had lived in the famously reclusive country from 2005 to 2007.  Actually, when I heard that the kids had already studied about it, I thought it might be more interesting for them if, rather than deliver a talk, I simply took part in a question and answer session.  And the very first question put to me was: “What was your favourite food when you were there?”


Without missing a beat, I said… “Kimchi!”


Kimchi is surely the most celebrated dish of the two Koreas, north and south.  It’s traditionally made of cabbage – fermented cabbage, whose flavour has been pumped up and bulked out by the addition of such culinary steroids as red chili pepper, coarse rock salt, garlic and, in some cases, gat, i.e. green Korean mustard.  The result is a wondrous foodstuff that subjects your taste-buds to the equivalent of a vigorous but exhilarating massage.  And by the way, pay no heed to foreign wimps who complain that kimchi is ‘too spicy’.


Also, certain fuds have been known to complain that kimchi is not only overly spicy, but also ‘smelly’.  As a result, Korean food-scientists have reportedly been trying to create an odour-free kimchi in order to appease these fuds.  I can only respond to this by paraphrasing Dr Samuel Johnson’s words about London and declaring that if you are tired of the smell of kimchi, you are tired of life itself.


Actually, it was just as well that I liked kimchi so much because during my two years in North Korea I acquired an awful lot of it.  At the university in Pyongyang where I worked, the female lecturers would sometimes disappear for a few days, summoned from their workplaces to help with the country’s latest kimchi-production drive.  When they came back, they’d invariably present me – dried red kimchi-stains visible under their fingernails – with plastic bags containing some of the results of their labours.  Thus, the fridge in my Pyongyang apartment was usually well-stocked with these gifts of kimchi.


Indeed, it became my standard late-Friday-night, just-back-from-the-pub snack-food.  After I’d drunk some Taedonggang beers in my local pub, I’d feel a great craving for a kimchi sandwich, and the contents of those bags were commonly devoured between thick slabs of well-buttered bread when I got home.  (Incidentally, it was not unknown for me to awake on Saturday mornings and find my clothes stained with blood-red kimchi juice and find puddles of more kimchi juice on my kitchen floor – so that for a nightmarish moment I’d wonder if, drunkenly the night before, I’d inadvertently murdered someone and then tried to dispose of the corpse by dismembering it in the kitchen.)


By the way, kimchi isn’t always red in colour.  White varieties of it are available too and, prior to the 18th century, none of it was red at all.  The 18th century was when a key ingredient in its making, red hot chili powder, was introduced to the Korean peninsula.  That red chili powder, incidentally, is a source of vitamins A and C and contributes to kimchi’s famous reputation for healthiness.  It’s claimed to be a preventer of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and the general aging process, and while I was living in North Korea. I even recall someone claiming that it acted against HIV and AIDS too.  Well, the HIV / AIDS thing is no doubt an exaggeration, but I’m sure that after eating those hefty, dripping kimchi sandwiches I never suffered from hangovers.  Maybe it was the amount of moisture in the stuff, leaching into my body and saving me from alcohol-induced dehydration.


Kimchi is diverse.  I’ve read that there are more than 200 different varieties of it, not just made from cabbage but from radishes and cucumber too.  But if I had to name a favourite kimchi, I would nominate the traditional red kimchi that features among the many side-dishes you get when you order a meal in the Han Gook Gwan restaurant on Colombo’s Havelock Road.  This is a resolutely old-school, no-frills Korean restaurant and is all the better for it.


Our man in Pyongyang writes a book


One place that I’ve been to during my travels and that I haven’t written about in this blog so far is the DPRK, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – or North Korea as it’s known to the English-speaking world – where I worked from 2005 to 2007.  Predictably, that’s the country about which people will bombard me with questions if, in conversation, I let it slip that I’ve been there.  Sure, they’ve heard plenty about the DPRK on one hand, but they know nothing about the details of life there on the other.  So, understandably, they’re intensely curious.


However, before I took up residency in the DPRK’s capital city, Pyongyang, I was warned by my superiors to say nothing about the country to Western journalists and to avoid expressing opinions about it on social media.  Basically, if uncomplimentary comments are made about the country’s regime, and the intelligence services get to hear of them, steps may well be taken to punish the commenter.  And if that person is untouchable because, say, he happens to be a Westerner with Western diplomatic privileges, then the people he works with who are touchable may be punished instead.  Thus, by mouthing off publicly about life in the DPRK, I might put at risk the North Korean people whom I worked with.  (My North Korean colleagues, incidentally, were by-and-large lovely people.  They possessed a mocking, nicely sarcastic sense of humour that was actually very much like the humour of the British.)


Anyway, I’ve noticed that John Everard, who was British Ambassador to the DPRK during the second year I lived there, has recently written a book – a memoir from the sound of things, though with some historical and political commentary as well – about the country called Only Beautiful Please.  According to the reviews I’ve read (for instance, at and, it’s an informative and entertaining work, but the very existence of this book makes me feel uncomfortable.


I have a suspicion that if the book is less than positive about the regime’s character, the North Koreans whom John Everard was in regular contact with during his time there (and who presumably and unintentionally supplied him with many of the anecdotes about daily life in the DPRK that fill the book’s pages) could get into big trouble.  At least some of those people, I would imagine, were ones I had contact with too.


Now I have nothing against Mr Everard.  During the year that I knew him, he was extremely supportive of the programme I was working on.  I was also very grateful to him and his staff at the British Embassy in Pyongyang when, three weeks before I was due to finish there in 2007, a family bereavement meant I had to leave the country a little sooner than I’d anticipated – they dealt with various pieces of red tape and enabled me to make an early exit.  Nonetheless, I sincerely hope he’s been cautious about what he says in his book and about whom he attributes his ‘inside information’ to.


One thing I will say about my life in Pyongyang – I had to devise a lot of strategies to deal with the plentiful free time that I found myself with.  During those two years, I read a great deal.  I managed, for example, to read all of Thomas Hardy’s lesser known novels – Two on a Tower, A Laodicien, The Hand of Ethelberta, Desperate Remedies, The Well-Beloved.  Also, I ended up writing a book myself.  This was a history of one of my local football teams back in Scotland, Peebles Rovers, which was researched by my brother and his mate, Dougie Swann.  They sent me the results of their research and I wrote it all up.



The History of Peebles Rovers was published while I was still living in Pyongyang.  How my blood froze when I discovered that the local newspaper in Peebles, the Peeblesshire News, had printed an article about it.  One of the Peeblesshire’s tabloid-trained hacks interviewed my brother, then ignored everything he’d said and invented a pile of lies about how the book had been written in Pyongyang.  The finished article made out that I’d written the book under oppressive circumstances similar to those under which Anne Frank had written her diary in wartime Amsterdam.  Now obviously the North Korean intelligence services don’t normally read the Peeblesshire News when it comes out every Friday morning.  For a while, however, when you Googled the words Ian Smith North Korea, the first thing that came up was a link to the article, bad-mouthing the DPRK, on the newspaper’s website.  But I didn’t get into any trouble about it, as things turned out.  My hosts evidently didn’t consider me worthy of the occasional security check.


In a later attempt not to succumb to inactivity and indolence, I joined forces with my next-door neighbour, who was Swiss, and we undertook a project whereby we transformed one of our apartment-building’s garages.  Until then, the garage had been a long-disused concrete shell, festooned with cobwebs and smothered with dust.



We cleaned the garage out, painted it, installed some lights and furniture and turned it into a Cuban theme bar.  As you do.  Thus, if John Everard’s book refers to a crazy pair of foreigners who turned their Pyongyang garage into something resembling a hang-out on the main tourist drag in Havana, that will be us.  Though I’m sure that it doesn’t.



Mind you, as this photograph proves, the future author of Only Beautiful Please was spotted enjoying the ambience of Pyongyang’s first Cuban bar on its opening night.