KIMCHI AND SAUERKRAUT

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.
image
What is happening behind all these manipulations is that the cabbage is being subjected to fermentation by lactobacillus bacteria. The results look like this.
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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!
image
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.

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Kimchi pots: http://www.lovethatkimchi.com/Kimchi_Pots/Onggi.html
Kimchi: http://www.surakoreancuisine.com/koreas-greatest-food-kimchi/
Choucroute garnie: http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/choucroute-garnie

HORSE AND DONKEY

Beijing, 1 March 2013

So The Europeans have their knickers in a twist about horsemeat in their beef, while the Kenyans are up in arms because donkey meat is being passed off there as beef. OK, it’s not correct to sell one thing under the guise of another, but horsemeat and donkey meat are actually really good. I first had donkey meat in a little restaurant along the Naviglio Grande, one of Milan’s canals

naviglio-grande

That night, the chef was serving what is a very typical Lombard dish, stracotto d’asino or donkey stew.

stracotto-dasino

And of course, as is de rigueur in a Lombard dish worthy of the name, it was served with polenta.

polenta-2

The combination is vital, because the firm flouriness of the polenta admirably counterbalances the sweet mushiness of the stracotto. Donkey meat, which is anyway sweeter-tasting than beef, becomes even sweeter in a stracotto.

Sweetness of taste is also a characteristic of horsemeat, which I first ate as a boy with my French grandmother. Boucheries chevalines, or butchers specializing in horsemeat, were very common in France when I was young; the French did not have the squeamishness of the English when it came to eating horse.

boucherie chevaline

Horse was also cheaper than beef, so the poorer classes ate horsemeat. My grandmother was poor but had not been so when she was young, so she tried to avoid horsemeat and its suggestion of poverty. But from time to time, when the bank balance was a little low, she deigned to buy it. When we were in the house in the country, the butcher – and the grocer – came to us rather than us having to go to them. One of my boyhood memories is the insistent sound of a horn on the road outside, at which point a great cry would go up “the butcher [or the grocer, depending on the day of the week] has arrived” and there would be a frenzied gathering up of money, shopping lists and shopping bags, as my grandmother [or mother during the summer] was anxious to get to the road before the butcher [or grocer] drove off. I tagged along, loving the noise and drama of it all. I also was fascinated by these mobile shops, which looked somewhat like this:

citroen_h_boucherie

It was a Citroen van, which had been kitted out to open up on the side. The butcher [or grocer] would stand inside exactly as he would behind his counter in the shop. The photo is actually of a miniature model, which has been set up in a very realistic scenery; it certainly comes close to my memory of what awaited us when we got out onto the road. This a photo of the real thing, although this particular example has been gussied up for modern urbanites:

citroen_h_boucherie-2

And when my grandmother did buy horsemeat, she would cook it up as a steak, with home-made frites, or French fries. Horsemeat is a much darker meat than beef, as this photo shows:

horse steak

Well, now that I have confessed – cheerfully, I would say – to the heinous crime of eating donkey and horse, let me come completely clean and also confess to having eaten dog. In South Korea. Very delicious, as the Chinese would say …

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Naviglio grande: http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3087/2312319399_2401d37b1f_z.jpg
Stracotto d’asino: http://www.piaceredelgusto.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Brasato-dasino.jpg
Polenta: http://www.italianfoodnet.com/uploads/img/news-polenta_taragna.jpg
Boucherie chevaline: http://www.lebouguen-lesbaraques.infini.fr/IMG/jpg/Boucherie_Lubin_au_Bouguen_Pepere_Mamie_Mr_Guyomard_et_Rosie_famille_Regine.jpg
Mobile butcher model: http://www.minitub43.com/IMG/jpg/2280.jpg
Mobile butcher: http://cmvmoto.free.fr/Salon%20Epoqu%27Auto%20Lyon%202011/Citroen%20Type%20H%20Boucherie_03.jpg
Horse steak: http://boucherie-cheval.fr/wp-content/themes/boucherie-chevaline/timthumb.php?src=http://boucherie-cheval.fr/photos-viande-cheval/Rond-de-tranche-de-cheval-viande-chevaline.png&w=600&h=180&zc=1&q=100