I didn’t grow up with Korean food.
Adopted into a white, small-town Tasmanian family, I grew up with your classic meat and three veg—veg boiled to within an inch of their lives. (I always left the mushy carrots, peas, and beans behind. So effectively, I ate meat and potatoes.)
Not that I’m complaining.
There was nothing fancy or gourmet, but I ate well. I have fond memories of creamy, garlicky steak diane with buttered noodles, Friday night fish and chips—thick-cut chips with lashings of salt and vinegar, and weekend breakfasts of bacon and eggs, with a side of black pudding if I was at my Scottish grandparents’ place. (I had no idea back then that it’s made from congealed pigs’ blood.)
Basically, I grew up on a solid diet of 90s white people food and I loved it.
When I was adopted, my parents were told by the adoption agency that I didn’t like kimchi. Was this was unusual for a three-and-a-half-year-old Korean child? I’m not sure. Growing up, I didn’t know what kimchi was anyway. Neither did my parents.
I didn’t eat kimchi again until my 20s.
(This was slightly before the rise of Korean food as the “new delicious Asian cuisine”, and before kimchi became known as one of Gwyneth Paltrow’s top superfoods.)
I was expecting to either love or hate it. That either my Korean genes would immediately embrace their national food (when you ask Koreans what their favourite food is, the answer is often simply kimchi or kimchi jjigae) or I’d reject it as I did as a child. My ultimate reaction was somewhere in between. I could take it or leave it.
Since then, and while living in Korea of course, I’ve had a million-and-one opportunities to eat kimchi. My favourite kimchi, the perfect combination of spicy, sour, and bitter, comes from my Sukmo’s (aunt related by marriage) 85-year-old mother—one of those Korean women of a certain generation from the countryside, who still makes everything by hand, using ingredients from her own garden.
Over the years kimchi has certainly grown on me, though never to the point where I really crave it. However it’s such a Korean household staple that my Korean family insists upon giving it to me in large quantities. Well, at least it never goes off.
When you bring kimchi into your house, or—god forbid—make it at home, it exacts a price. The pungent odors will waft out each time you open your fridge door—consider this, perhaps, when you live in a one-room studio apartment. It will also stain your hands, chopping boards, tupperware (I suggest glassware), and your bench tops (and those magic eraser sponges).
There are many things you can do with kimchi.
You can make jiggae or jjim, bokkeumbap (kimchi fried rice), or you can fry a little in some butter. The richness of the butter mellows the sour spiciness of the kimchi (and mmm…anything fried in butter). Eat that hot buttered kimchi with steamed white rice, perhaps with some grilled chicken or a fried egg or both alongside, or pop it into a grilled cheese sandwich.
You’ve probably heard of kimchi pancake too, but one delicious variant is 묵은지김치전 (mugeunchi kimchi jeon), made from washed, aged kimchi. If your kimchi is good, when you wash all the messy red stuff off, you’ll still retain that sour tang but lose some of the sharpness and heat, for a more subtle taste. I love it.
2 simple ways to make aged kimchi pancake:
Please note, I am NOT a chef, a professional recipe tester, a Nigella-esque skilled home cook (though I’d like to be), or even an experienced food blogger. The following are merely suggestions, not “recipes”.
Method 1: Traditional plain flour-and-egg country style, à la my Sukmo
1. Wash and dry the kimchi leaves (try to separate them right from the head of the cabbage). As I mentioned, the kimchi might be a b*tch and stain everything in sight.
2. Lightly coat the leaves in flour.
3. Coat the leaves in beaten egg. (No need to season either the flour or egg if the kimchi is good.) Spread the kimchi into a hot, lightly oiled pan like large puzzle pieces and fry until golden brown, flipping once.
Method 2: Super crispy 튀김가루 jeon
1. Again, wash and dry the kimchi leaves.
2. Again, lightly coat the leaves in plain flour, so that the wet 튀김가루 batter will stick better.
3. Make a sloppy batter (a little looser than regular pancake batter) with 튀김가루 and water, and coat the floured kimchi leaves.
4. Heat a generous amount of oil in a pan, hot enough that salt forms bubbles when you throw it in.
5. Again, place the leaves into the pan, slightly overlapping, to form a roundish shape. Fry until golden brown, flipping once (good luck with that).
6. You can use a pizza cutter or large kitchen scissors, Korean style, to cut the pancake into smaller pieces before eating.
7. Serve with a dipping sauce of *roughly* 2 parts soy, 1 part vinegar, and 1 part water. Throw in some sesame seeds/고추가루 (korean chilli flakes)/chopped spring onions, if you have them.
But the truth is, I was slightly disappointed by all of my homemade jeon efforts…
And you may be too.
So if you’re in Seoul, screw the cooking and head to Mapo!
(If not, err… find better jeon recipes?)
Here’s where to eat aged kimchi pancake in Seoul
숨은골목 (Hidden Alley) makgeolli bar in Yeonnam-dong
Go for the aged kimchi jeon, but also for the other anju, good range of makgeolli and friendly sajangnim.
*Warning: it can be hard to get a table sometimes.
And here’s where to eat aged kimchi kimbap in Seoul
There’s a little home-style Korean place called Nan Hapjeong with a daily changing menu, and a ‘signature dish’ of 묵은지롤: aged kimchi wrapped around white rice, brushed with sesame oil and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Sometimes the simple things really are the best.
*Warning: they sell out early sometimes.
Until next time, happy adventures with mugeunchi!