Seoul, 13 April 2016

I’m in South Korea at the moment, giving a training on green industry. It is Spring here. In Bangkok, I’ve forgotten what Spring is like and the delights it brings to the heart of the first signs of new growth. There are wonderful, wonderful cherry trees in bloom just outside the training room, which makes it difficult for me to focus on my presentations.

But I don’t want to talk about any of that. I want to talk about kimchi, which I was confronted with last night at an otherwise perfectly respectable Korean meal. For those readers who have not heard of this foodstuff, it is without doubt the national dish of Korea – both Koreas, actually, North and South (on this deeply divided peninsula, there are two things that unite its peoples: their love of kimchi, and their deep dislike of the Japanese). South Koreans eat it at breakfast, lunch, and dinner (as I’m sure would the North Koreans had they any kimchi to eat and any rice to eat it with). There is a museum of kimchi in Seoul. It has been listed with UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage, by both North and South Korea – separately, of course. It is said – but I wonder if this is not an urban legend – that during the Vietnam War, the-then South Korean President begged President Johnson to urgently help get kimchi to the South Korean troops who were fighting alongside their American comrades; without it, their morale was sagging badly. More believably, when the SARS crisis hit in 2003, kimchi sales in South Korea soared 40%, on the back of people’s belief that it would surely help ward off the evil disease.

As one might expect from a dish which is the subject of such national adulation, there are many regional variations and no doubt noisy arguments about which variant is the best. That being said, the most common type of kimchi – and certainly the one I have seen in Korean restaurants and eateries – is based on cabbage, napa cabbage to be precise. To make this kimchi is very easy, and if I’m not mistaken any self-respecting Korean housewife (not housespouse; this is still a very male dominated society) can make her own. Take the cabbage, cut it in pieces, thoroughly coat the pieces with salt, let them stand in their own briny juice for several hours, pressing them down from time to time. In the meantime, chop up some Asian radish and scallions, and prepare a paste of finely chopped garlic and ginger with fish sauce or salted shrimp and crushed dried paprika (this is the basic paste recipe, to which I’m sure can be added other ingredients whose identity are the jealously guarded secrets of individual kimchi makers). Thoroughly rinse the cabbage pieces of their brine, mix them well with the radish and scallions, and coat the whole with the paste. Let this mixture stand in some suitable container for several days at a cool temperature – in the old days, Korean housewives used beautiful pots like these and buried them in the earth during winter.
What is happening behind all these manipulations is that the cabbage is being subjected to fermentation by lactobacillus bacteria. The results look like this.
Depending on tastes and needs, the kimchi can be eaten “fresh” or left to continue to ferment and eaten months later.

It is sad to report that while the Korean populations love this stuff, I hate it. Well, “hate” may be a strong word: “thoroughly dislike it” may be the better term. During my first-ever trip to South Korea, while my credit with my hosts soared after I ate dog and declared it to be most delicious (and I wasn’t being polite), it crashed when I made it also very clear that kimchi was revolting. What to do, the perils of cultural exchanges.

It’s actually puzzling that I don’t like kimchi, because I looooove sauerkraut or, to give it its French name under which I first got to know it decades and decades ago, choucroute. Aah, those most magnificent choucroutes garnies of my youth, sauerkraut served with pork chops and various sausages, with boiled potatoes on the side!
If I close my eyes, I can still remember, still taste in my mouth, a truly wonderful sauerkraut which I had on a German ferry boat carrying a bunch of us from school to Germany (we were on our way to do two weeks of “military service”, required of all of us by our high school, with a British tank regiment stationed near Hannover; but I digress, these fond memories being triggered no doubt by the lingering taste of that truly epochal sauerkraut).

As I say, it is indeed puzzling that I don’t like kimchi, because sauerkraut is also cabbage-based and is subjected to exactly the same procedure of brining followed by a fermentation at the hands (as it were) of lactobacilli. What is going on here?

After some thought, I have concluded that the paste is to blame. Actually, I think this is a no-brainer. I mean, what else is different between the two? My problem with kimchi has to reside in the paste. My first thought was that the paprika was the culprit. As I have written in no uncertain terms in an earlier post, I can’t stand hot spices, and the paprika in the kimchi certainly doesn’t endear me to the dish. But my problem with kimchi goes deeper than the burnt-out mouth it gives me. Below that lurks another problem, a problem of bitterness. One or more of the other ingredients in the kimchi is changing the taste from the sour of sauerkraut to the bitter of kimchi. I’m afraid I will never know which it is until I do some scientific experiments in the kitchen, making fermented cabbage and varying the ingredients it is pasted with. I can therefore cheerfully add sauerkraut/kimchi to the list of foodstuffs which I will try making when I have retired, and I will report back if and when I find the solution.

In the meantime, all this writing about sauerkraut has given me a serious desire to eat some. I need to send an urgent message to my wife, who is excellent at searching the Internet, asking her to identify a restaurant where we can eat a half-decent choucroute garnie in Bangkok.

Kimchi pots:
Choucroute garnie:


Beijing, 28 June 2014

The first time my wife and I went to North Korea, we were given the royal treatment – well, not royal since we were in a Socialist paradise, but out of the ordinary. We were taken to the place where the Great Leader Kim Il-sung was born. We were taken to the national museum which showed Korea’s glorious history from the earliest times up to the defining moment when the Great Leader (and his family) took over. And we were taken to the International Friendship Exhibition Hall outside of Pyongyang.

international frienship exhibition hall-exterior

The point of this massive building was to show the people of North Korea, and ignorant visitors like ourselves, that contrary to what the cynical capitalists might say about the Great Leader being a political pariah he was actually very much loved by peoples from all over the world. As testimony to this blindingly obvious fact, the building housed the tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of gifts which he had received during his reign, from the mightiest of mighty personalities (heads of state and suchlike) to the lowliest of the lowly (a local communist youth league from some benighted country, for instance). These are all lovingly laid out in high-end display cabinets which are spread out through hundreds of rooms over seven or eight floors. Someone with a tidy frame of mind, perhaps the Great Leader himself, had neatly divided all the gifts by geographical region of provenance (Africa, Asia, and so on). When we arrived, the guide asked us what region we wanted to visit. Much to her surprise, I plumped for Africa, continent of my birth. Rather disappointed she took us there, but once we had visited that part of the collection, she beamed her approval when we said we now wanted to visit Europe, obviously where we should have been the whole time.

The whole experience was totally surreal. The place was spotlessly clean, so clean, so antiseptic, that we were required to put on shoe-covers. We were there in early November, and it was nice and warm inside the Exhibition Hall, in stark contrast to every other building in the country which we had visited, which were cold and dank – the population was expected to save on precious imported fuel. The lights were motion-sensitive, so rooms instantly lit up the moment we walked in and blacked out the moment we left them (there wasn’t a single window in the place). All of this hoopla for displaying gifts which were really very, very ordinary and in some cases in embarrassingly bad taste. If I had been given these gifts, after thanking the giver politely and waving him off at the door, I would have promptly put 99% of them in the attic for future “recycling”. We had to keep reminding ourselves that the whole point of this grotesque exercise was to show the viewer – again and again, obsessively – that the Great Leader was adored by all the peoples of the world. As a grand finale to all of this, the guide ushered us into a large room with a diorama at one end of Korea’s famous Mount Paektu and a Mme Tussauds-like wax reproduction of the Great Leader standing in front of it with a benign, grandfatherly smile on his face. As we walked in, piped concert music swelled to a crescendo and the North Koreans who were with us bowed deeply (we stood there, not knowing quite what to do, shifting from foot to foot, rather like atheists in a church).

Apart from the discomfort we felt at seeing all this money being poured into a project of pharaonic proportions in a country where the people are dying of hunger, we were amazed by the strangeness, not to say the bad taste, of many of the gifts. I can understand that communist youth leagues might only be able to afford a cheap ashtray as a gift, but even the high and mighty gave odd gifts. How, for instance, did Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State, arrive at the idea of giving the Great Leader a basketball signed by Michael Jordan?

Kim present-basketball

Maybe President Carter’s gift explains it all: you have no idea what to give, so you choose the most colourless thing you can think of – in his case, literally so:

Kim present-glass bowl

Or you become so desperate trying to figure out what to give that you end up giving something completely ridiculous, like the Sandanistas of Nicaragua, who gave the Great Leader a grinning alligator standing up, holding out a wooden tray of cocktail glasses.

Kim present-alligator

The strange world of official gift-giving …

I was reminded of all this last weekend, when my wife and I visited China’s National Museum on Tiananmen Square. We actually went there to see if we could buy a copy of one of the Tang-era porcelain horses, to complement the copy of a Tang-era camel which we had purchased there a few years ago. Alas! The only one on sale was far too big for our modest dwelling. Disconsolate, we went around seeing what was new. Which brought us to a new exhibition of the official gifts received over the years by China’s Greats: Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, the recent Presidents and Prime Ministers, and other luminaries whose names meant nothing to me. The same general bad taste which assailed us in North Korea prevailed, although it wasn’t quite as bad as in the International Friendship Exhibition Hall. Either the cheap ashtrays had been quietly and sensibly “recycled” or people were more eager to be friends with China than with North Korea and were more careful about the gifts they made. Or both. But it still amazed us how much bad taste leaders of the world exhibit. I have to put it down to gift choosing being a decision made by a government committee somewhere, and we all know that government committee decisions lead to the Least Common Denominator, and the Great Person not having the time to check the gifts before he or she packs the bags, kisses the partner on the cheek, hugs the kids, pats the pet, and heads for the airport for the next official visit.

Luckily, though, in all this morass of dubious taste a few pieces stood out, pieces which we wouldn’t have minded keeping rather than storing in the attic for “recycling” etc. I note these here for posterity with photos taken with my iPhone.

In general, I feel that the Canadians did better than everyone else in their choice of gifts. Here is the one that Pierre Trudeau gave Zhou Enlai, a beautiful Native Indian double mask, from the style I would guess from the Pacific coast

canadian mask 002

while here is a small but lovely sculpture, also given by Pierre Trudeau but this time to Zhu De, of a seal carved in  bone

canadian seal 001

This piece was given by Governor-General Romeo LeBlanc to Jiang Zemin, a beautiful carving in jade stone of what appears to be a merman dancing.

canadian merman 001

Keeping to the regional focus used in North Korea (the exhibition had the pieces laid out temporally), we can continue with North America, where the only other piece worthy of mention actually came from the same part of the world as the previous two, Alaska. It is a gift from that State’s Government to Deng Xiaoping, of an Inuit ice fishing, made of walrus bone

alaskan inuit 001

There was nothing else of note from the rest of the USA, or from Central America, so we can fly over to South America to land in Bolivia, where President Jaime Paz Zamora gave Yang Shangkun this lovely silver mask

bolivian mask 001

and then to Brazil, where President Jao Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo gave Deng Xiaoping this delicate gift of a silver crane with crystal feathers

brazilian crane 001

(another Brazilian tried the same style some years later, but the result was not nearly as noteworthy)

After which I propose to fly over to Africa, which gave some of the best – but also many of the worst – gifts. Here are the best:

– a silver warrior riding his camel, from Niger, given by Head of State Seyni Kountche to Deng Xiaoping

nigerois warrior and camel 001

– somewhat in the same style but on a grander scale, a brass horse and rider from Cameroon, given by President Ahmadou Ahidjo to Zhou Enlai

cameroon brass horse 001

– a plate from the Republic of Congo, given by President Alphonse Massamba-Debat to Mao Zedong

congolese plate 001

– bust from Gabon, given by President El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba to Jiang Zemin

gabon bust 001

– and finally a gift from North Africa, a painting from Tunisia, given by Prime Minister Hedi Nouira to Zhou Enlai

tunisian painting 001

Tunisia is close to Europe, so why not do a hop, skip and a jump north over the Mediterranean. There was precious little that was nice from there, though. The best was this glass bird, a curlew, from Finland, a gift from Prime Minister Matti Vanhani to Wen Jiaobao

finnish bird 001

(there was another Finnish gift in the same style, but unfortunately the photo came out blurred so I haven’t added it; the Swedes, by the way, also gave a gift in glass, of fish in this case, but of appalling taste)

The Belgians, through the good office of King Baudoin, made a gift to Deng Xiaoping of a small but beautiful statue of a sitting horse

belgian horse 001

while from Portugal came this gift from Prime Minister Jose Socrates to Hu Jintao of a silver plate with a lovely azulejo­-inset of a boat in full sail

portuguese plate 001

Which leaves Asia, from where there was even less than Europe. The best was this silver bowl with a glass liner of a lustrous blue, from Vietnam, a gift from the Government to Liu Shaoqi.

vietnamese silver bowl 001

And that was it, as far as we were concerned. Really sad to see how little taste our Great Leaders have.

By the way, readers might be interested to know that, not to be outdone by his father, the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il also built himself a hall, next to his father’s, to house his collection of rubbish … I mean, gifts. Luckily, we didn’t have to visit that one. No doubt Kim Jong-un, the current Supreme leader of North Korea, is currently hard at work with a team of architects designing his hall. Meanwhile, his people die of starvation and neglect.


International Friendship Exhibition Hall: [in
Kim present-basketball: [in
Kim present-glass bowl: [in
Kim present-alligator: [in
all other photos: mine


Beijing, 8 April 2013

My older brother, whom I mentioned in my previous posting, sent me an email yesterday asking me if I would join the lengthening list of foreigners who, according to the Financial Times, are leaving Beijing because of the pollution but also more recently because of the sharp increase in the levels of bellicosity emanating from North Korea. I should explain that I have the dubious privilege of also covering North Korea for my organization and in this guise I have visited the country a few times. My personal view, for what it’s worth, is that all the shouting and bawling by the North Korean leadership has more to do with solidifying support for a young, callow leader than with an actual desire for war. So it is with a certain complacency that I watch footage on the world’s TV programmes of Kim Jong Un showing off his military skills in front of admiring generals.

On the other hand, I am particularly taken by TV footage showing North Korean soldiers marching around Pyongyang’s central square; I am a great admirer of their drilling skills. When I was a boy at school we had to play at soldiers once a week (on Monday afternoons to be precise), and part of the play was learning to drill. So I have a keen appreciation, born from many miserable hours marching about the school parking lot, of how complicated it is to get a bunch of men – and women – to walk in step, goose-step at that, stiff as robots, and have them wheel and turn in precise unison around a square.

north korean soldiers drilling-2


All this marching around makes me think of one thing which particularly struck me and my wife during my first visit, and her only visit, to Pyongyang: the traffic police. At the time of that first visit, Pyongyang didn’t have any traffic lights and what little traffic there was at road crossings was regulated by women police officers (they were all women). And let me tell you, these ladies were no slouches! They were most military in style. It started when they took up their shift, which saw them marching briskly to their spot in the middle of the crossroads.

traffic police girl-marching into position-1

Once in place, they regulated traffic with a baton, very visible arm signals, and a stern face. My wife and I watched them for a while and we came to the conclusion that this was the code:

“Change in flow patterns about to take place!”

traffic police girl-pointing up-3

“Traffic from my right [or left] can turn left [or right]!”

traffic police girl-pointing forward-3

“Traffic coming from my left [or right] can go straight past me”

traffic police girl-pointing across chest-1

After warning of a change, the policewoman would wheel smartly on her heel to face in the right direction.

It was a fascinating militaristic ballet to watch.

There is also a fashion element in all of this. The first three photos show the ladies in their winter uniform, the last in their summer uniform. Personally, I prefer the winter uniform.

We are not the only ones to have found the traffic policewomen fascinating. There is a whole website dedicated to them! I admire all the photos that were taken. We were told not to take photos, and I meekly complied. But others clearly ignored the interdict. As you can see, the policewomen were Not Amused by these law-breakers.

traffic police girl-pointing up-2

Before boring traffic lights were introduced, I suspect all countries had these traffic police. Italy certainly did. My wife remembers them well from her youth, and I have found a few old photographs of them on the web.

traffic police italy-7

traffic police italy-9

From the makes of the cars, we reckon the photos were taken in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s. I’ve seen the Italian police in action a few times when traffic lights have gone on the blink (or perhaps I should say off the blink). I must say, they were very theatrical: step 1, gaze intensely at the oncoming cars; step 2, raise the hand slowly and very obviously; step 3, snap it into place and accompany it with a short, shrill blow on the whistle.

traffic police italy-4

I am reminded of a story my elder brother told me many years ago – the same brother with whom I started this post. In the late ‘60s, he was staying in Rome for a few months, in the Trastevere district. He recounted that there was a policeman who was particularly well known by the district’s locals for his elegant style in directing traffic. When it was time for his shift, an admiring crowd would gather to watch him in action, and at the end of his shift they would clap – at least, so claimed my brother; but this last part I doubt.

Sadly, I saw during my last visit to Pyongyang that traffic lights have arrived there. As for the traffic police ladies, they were left to slouch about in a most unmilitary fashion at their road crossings, playing no obvious role that I could see. Sic transit gloria mundi.


N. Korean soldiers drilling-2:–/YXBwaWQ9eW5ld3M7Y2g9MTk2OTtjcj0xO2N3PTMwMDA7ZHg9MDtkeT0wO2ZpPXVsY3JvcDtoPTQxNDtxPTg1O3c9NjMw/
N. Korean soldiers drilling-3:
Traffic policewoman taking up her shift:
Traffic policewoman pointing up:
Traffic policewoman pointing forward:
Traffic policewoman pointing across:
Traffic police Italy-1:
Traffic police Italy-2:
Traffic police Italy-3: