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.