Curse of the Kimchi

Inside a crippling addiction to Korean pickled cabbage

I've heard of this before—seen it, in fact: Friends who were compelled to regularly purchase giant containers of kimchi and eat right out of the jar. I would say, "sure, I like kimchi," but I was picturing small dishes at Korean BBQ restaurants like Won Jo, or kimchi stew at my favorite Koreatown non-BBQ, Kunjip. True, as a side dish, I usually have to request seconds, but I never thought I'd become one of them.

Things started to change when I noticed plastic containers marked "homemade kimchi" at my Korean-owned neighborhood market, Natural Land. What harm could this do, I thought, adding one to my basket. Weighing about three quarters of a pound, that $2.91 container sent me down a road of kimchi addiction I never saw coming. It was crisp, hot, and bright with fresh ginger. I found myself leaning against my kitchen counter, eating it cold as an impromptu appetizer until I got a stomachache. And it didn't stop there.

Soon, I was craving kimchi constantly. During my lunch break I scoured Asian markets to find the best. The Korean grocery, m2m, sells Tobagi-brand kimchi in sealed containers or in bulk—a large plastic bag. Though packaged by the same company, the ingredients differ. The packaged kimchi contains additions like apple and pear, plus MSG. It isn't sweet, but dumbed-down and thick. I assume the sugar is added to speed fermentation. It seemed the ingredients were ground, making a mealy blanket. The bulk version, which I felt a little naughty lugging home, was thinner, lighter, and hotter. I found a similarly straightforward example at the Jackson Heights supermarket, Chonghap.

Traditionally, the fermentation process is indulged properly and patiently. The cabbage and red pepper mixture is salted and aged in a clay container for weeks to achieve the sourness of actual pickling, which is often skipped completely. Most of the kimchi I have been enjoying is hot and salty but not so sour. Several Koreans have told me they leave store-bought kimchi out of the fridge, open, for a few days to encourage souring. At the Union Square Farmer's Market, a woman sells wonderful kimchi in sticky, recycled plastic containers. Hers is aged for just two days. It's very simple and stands out mostly because the Napa cabbage is thin and crisp—not surprisingly, she also sells great organic greens like bok choy and baby arugula.

The kimchi craze has struck millions of non-Koreans, as evidenced in Japan's struggle to establish it as an official part of Japanese cuisine. This has led to a passionate debate by foodies everywhere, and the intervention of CODEX, the United Nations of Gastronomy, which established a kimchi standard that does not require any fish products, though salted shrimp or anchovy is often added. CODEX declared Korea the "suzerain state of kimchi," but also recognized it as a global food. Perhaps some kind of support group will soon be available.

 
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