by Sally Hammond
The group of students posing for a photograph outside the Seoul Telstra Tower waggle rabbit-ear fingers above each other’s heads and shout the Korean version of ‘cheeeeese!’ for the camera.
Little wonder they choose to say kimchi. Not only does it make for smiley faces in the photos, but these youngsters have grown up eating this ubiquitous condiment at every meal – that’s every meal – of their lives, sometimes in several guises.
That’s the interesting thing about kimchi. Although the version most people know involves rubbing a crimson spice mixture between the leaves of brine-soaked Chinese cabbage which is then put to ferment, often for months, in an earthenware pot, there are at least a hundred other types. Even water kimchi, a sort of spicy turnip broth, appears often as one of the multitude of side dishes which are essential at each Korean meal.
A couple of years ago I visited the annual Kimchi Festival in the southern city of Gwangju. I watched an outdoor contest where fifty young soldiers competed in teams of two, meticulously rubbing that spicy paste of onions, radish, garlic, ginger, baby pickled shrimp and a good slurp of red pepper paste into their cabbages. Officials with clipboards stood by to record their scores.
References to kimchi have been found up to 3000 years ago in Korea. Like many countries with cold winters, a way was needed to safely preserve food for use when it was no longer available fresh. Fermentation (think, sauerkraut and pickles in Europe) was the ideal solution.
When Columbus came across chillies in 1492 there is evidence they reached Korea quickly – around 1542 – and the evolution of today’s kimchi began. Even today several huge stoneware crocks in stand courtyards at many houses. The largest store rice and grain, but next in size will be soybean paste, also much loved in this country, then red pepper jars and finally, smaller ones for the kimchi itself.
In the forests of grey-gabled apartment blocks that make up most city skylines, there are no courtyards. Modern Korean women (and yes, gender divides are still in place in many families) use a kimchi fridge to provide the perfect temperature for fermentation. At the massive Hyundai Department Store food hall in Seoul I come across ranks of Samsung and LG models, shaped much like squat chest freezers, eyed longingly by young Korean women.
Korea’s love affair with red pepper (aka chillies) is legendary. Red pepper paste is added to many dishes, and is always available on the table at meals. Koreans are estimated to consume four kilograms each per annum. In some countries people don’t eat that much chocolate!
At the extensive Kimchi Field Museum in the COEX Mall in Seoul, I hear (not for the first time) that some health experts credit kimchi for the fact Korea had no SARS victims during the outbreak several years ago. Garlic, chilli and cabbage, coupled with lactic acid produced in fermentation were the barrier to infection, some say. An ancient safeguard against a modern scourge, perhaps.
For visitors, kimchi is a love-it-or-hate-it staple. But it is only one part of the story. In fact I am more partial to another Korean dish. Bibimbap: a deep dish of rice on which is arranged various shredded and sliced vegetables and meat in a spoke-like pattern. It looks beautiful and tastes even better. Usually there is an egg on top, and of course a spoonful of that omnipresent pepper sauce to bring it all together.
Which is exactly what you do, stirring all the components into a tasty mass before you begin. From there it is chopsticks or spoon (love the Koreans, they are so relaxed about which implement to use) and one of the tastiest most well-balanced meals you could hope for.
I well remember my first bibimbap. I had flown overnight to Seoul, and was met at the airport by my guide on a misty grey October morning. After a couple of hours of a temple tour, my feet hurt (there’d been no time to check into the hotel and change) and I was chilled, tired and ready to stop.
Nearby in a small restaurant, we sat on low stools and in a few minutes a large dark bowl appeared in front of each of us, breathing steam and an appetising fragrance into the cool air. No doubt it was a combination of fatigue and hunger, but that moment it seemed the most beautiful food I had ever seen.
Better still as I explored the depths of this mystery mix, the carbo-rich contents working their magic on my mood, I discovered at the bottom that the rice had crusted against the scalding base of the stone pot into a crisp and savoury bonus.
It was a dish of benchmark flavours and textures and one I was determined to replicate many times. So within days of returning to Sydney I sought out the nearest Korean restaurant, dragging my mystified husband with me, and confidently ordered bibimbap. Imagine my disappointment when it arrived scarcely warm and totally lacking the incendiary heat – not to mention the crust – of my Seoul experience.
Over the years I have tried many times in Australia and even in Korea to recapture that first bibimbap experience. Always disappointed, beginning to question my memory, I was sure I had happened on the only place able to make bibimbap that way. And I had no idea of its location.
Until last week, that is. Finally in a small bright restaurant near Circular Quay in Sydney, in a room dominated incongruously by a grand piano, finally I had stone-pot bibimbap as it should be.
Joshua Kwak is the owner of Haemil restaurant and it was he who stirred my pot of rice and vegetables and raw egg yolk; he who after a quick look at me decided how much (plenty!) of pepper sauce he should add; and he who said firmly: “Now, let it sit for a moment so it can go crusty at the bottom.”
The magic phrase. This was what I had waited for so long. Without question, I obediently let it sit to do its trick, even though the aromas weaving up out of it were almost too much to resist.
There was no chance the dish would go cold while standing. These stone pots are heated in the oven until they almost glow and then placed on a heatproof stand. Anything within them stays truly hot. What’s more, my bibimbap crusted to perfection at the bottom, reminding me of that first grey day in Korea and a temple courtyard with persimmons glowing on bare branches.
As we ate, Joshua Kwak did another thing he does so well. He played the piano for us all, piece after piece of faultless classics. Incongruous, yes, yet it has become part of the appeal of this place.
Haemil’s unpretentious menu has many other dishes. My friends had a tofu soup that had them in raptures. A diner on a website raves about Haemil’s altang (fish roe soup), others the chicken and ginseng soup, several saying this is the place to find ‘the best Korean food in Sydney.’
I’d like to try some of these dishes, but my guess is that when I go again (which I think will have to be very soon) I just can’t see me resisting that bibimbap.
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