The “Kimchi Deficit”

When I do these things I usually start with an idea for a video. Sometimes it’s just some joke or visual reference that I like and I build the whole cooking video from that. Sometimes a particular recipe is called for to make the concept work, so I do that recipe. Other times, most any recipe will support the joke or theme and I pick something I want to cook. Then, once I get a finished video, something about it strikes a memory, or an opinion, or maybe some cultural reference I can build the written blog around.

Today, it started with an editorial I read in the L.A. Times by Gregory Rodriguez. He usually writes about cultural issues like race relations, ethnicity, and other complex human qualities detailing what it is to be part of the “New” America.

Well, this morning he stretched his parameters and talked about Korea, kimchi, and their national identity. Now, I am not Korean…I’m not even Asian. But, it touched a chord in me. If you’ve read this site before then you know I can be a bit nostalgic about food, tradition, and culture. Mr. Rodriguez hit me in the belly with all three!

Korean food is still a mystery to most Americans. That is changing, especially here in Los Angeles. But even if you are a bulgogi beginner, I hope you have had kimchi. It is a food so completely a part of the Korean consciousness that there is a museum in Seoul, solely (sorry I couldn’t resist) dedicated to the condiment.

And it is a condiment. It is not usually eaten alone. It is most commonly eaten with rice. But you can be assured it will be served alongside most anything at all in a Korean household.

Now I like hot, sour things. I really do. So I do not mind eating kimchi on its own, but I learned the hard way that it is really not the norm.

One day a couple years ago. Ken and I were down in the South Bay for some reason. We were hungry. Okay, you have to understand that I store restaurant information in my head the way most Angelinos store obscure short-cuts from point A to point B in rush hour traffic. You never know when your gonna need ‘em and you have no idea where the information comes from. But there it is, like magic; right when you need it.

Anyway, I had heard about this amazing Korean fried chicken place called Kyochon. I had heard there was one in Torrance.  I did not know much else.

So we Googled it and got an address. When we arrived I was surprised to find that it was in a Korean grocery store. In fact, it wasn’t really a restaurant at all, more like a food counter with a few tables (a very few tables). Well, we ordered the spicy, crispy, garlicky wings. We noticed there was not much on the menu vegetable-wise.

Since we were in a grocery store we went to the cold storage section and bought some kimchi to go along with it. Now I like kimchi, I have had it many, many, many times. I mean it’s cabbage…it seemed like a salad to me. So we had chicken wings and a “salad”. I was excited!

Like I said Kyochon had very few tables and they were all taken. But we did notice a lone table right outside the entrance of the market. We decided to eat our chicken out there. I put a chicken wing or two in my plate, along with a nice “portion” of kimchi. It was very good.

Soon after we started eating, I noticed that we were causing a bit of a commotion. Several market patrons commented on our lunch. It was mostly the older shoppers asking how our food was, sometimes snickering a little– but nothing outright obnoxious.

It seemed to me we were merely a novelty. We were eating Korean food, at a Korean Market on a public thoroughfare, in a very Korean neighborhood, and well, we are obviously not Korean. I was willing to assume that we were just a cultural oddity and these people were proud to share their food traditions with us. But then one gentleman asked if he could take our picture! I thought it odd, but saw no reason to object, so we agreed. He directed me to take a forkful and hold it up to my mouth. Well, it did seem to be getting weirder and weirder, but hey, I can be a good sport!

Well, he laughed so hard I just had to ask what was so funny! He said you would never see a Korean eat kimchi “that way”. What way?…with a fork?  But he just walked on.

The whole experience really stuck with me, so the next time I saw my Korean American friend Robert, I asked what was up with that whole thing. Now Robert is of the younger generation of Korean Americans, but he immediately understood what was going on. He explained to me that too many traditional Koreans watching somebody eat kimchi without rice, was like watching somebody eat salad without the salad, or perhaps eating a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich without the bread!

So you see kimchi really is part of the Korean social fabric. So when I read the staggering statistics about the effects of Global modernization on Korea and its heavily vaunted food traditions I felt a little sad. Mr. Rodriguez calls it the “kimchi deficit”.

It seems that the most Korean of all foods, kimchi, is now mostly supplied to Korea by China. To the uninformed, this might not seem so important. There are, after all, similarities in their cuisines. Right? Wrong! Because to those who value culture and food, it’s like the Lebanese getting Falafel from Israel! Or is that an equally obtuse simile?

So I guess I better go make a video about making kimchi! But don’t worry I won’t be exporting it to Korea. That kimchi deficit is scary enough without me getting involved.

Besides, I have never made kimchi before. I’m not sure anyone will even want to eat it. I’ll probably make a few people laugh when I do something really wrong! But I don’t mind learning by doing. Hopefully, somebody out there will point out my mistakes and I’ll gain a little more insight into the Korean culture. I think that’s a pretty good way to spend the afternoon.

I do have one small problem though. It is kind of embarrassing to think that I am in somebody’s coffee-table scrap-book or Flickr account eating kimchi with a fork like a salad (with out the salad).

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Greg Henry