On a photograph I took on the subject of Kim Jang (김 장), or Kimchi-Making, I wrote that Koreans eat kimchi with every meal, and Simone asked the question—“wow, every meal?”
This is the answer:
What do you eat for breakfast, señor?
Rice and kimchi soup!
What do you eat for lunch, señor?
Rice and kimchi soup!
What do you eat for dinner, señor?
Rice and kimchi soup!
The place this briny, spicy cabbage holds in Korean society cannot be compared to any other culture I am aware of. Koreans are absolutely food-oriented, everything revolves around enormous meals, although many of them completely skip breakfast because they think themselves too busy—unaware of how the first rule of existence states that you are never too busy for breakfast—and kimchi is the heart of every meal, even if it is technically a side dish. This red, burning, weighty, sauce-soaked leaf, with the most peculiar texture imaginable, of smooth wet rubber slathered in damp grainy paste, is the centerpiece of Korean culture, and, like the ajummas who are physically incapable of walking past anyone without shoving or elbowing them into the wall, even when there is plenty of room to go around, kimchi defines this place.
If you can eat it, they approve of you, and if you can’t, they don’t. If it’s your first time here and you’re eating with a group of Korean hosts, all of them will watch your reaction in a careful awkward silence as you take your first bite, and nod approvingly if your tongue approves, or shake their heads and chuckle and exchange looks if you commit the cultural blasphemy of spitting the kimchi back out with disgust. It acts as a kind of shibboleth, in the original sense as a test of nationality, and possibly a way of excluding the Japanese (who supposedly cannot bear spiciness (wasabi??)) while propelling themselves to the greatest heights of spiciness the human palate can take. I suspect they believe only Koreans can bear to consume the spiciness of kimchi—I have been asked several times if it is not too hot for me—and that they also think kimchi is the hottest dish on Earth, even though Mexican and Indian food (to say nothing of wasabi!?!) is easily hotter.
My wife recoiled in horror and disbelief when I informed her that the chili peppers used in the demiurgical production of this most fundamental side dish originate in Mexico, and therefore could not have been present in timeless, ancient Korea more than five centuries ago, and were, in fact, probably introduced little more than a century in the past. It would be so interesting to have a book of food history about this place, as I’ve read about the influence of the Mongols and the Chinese and the Japanese all mixing together here but I don’t have anything really solid to back these ideas up.
The country itself reeks of kimchi. In the summers the sewers seem to overflow with it, and when you step into the subway you are frequently greeted with the thick, whirling odor of someone’s kimchi fart struggling to escape through the opening doors like a demon fleeing an exorcist. I wonder how many times I have had to bear the brunt of half-digested kimchi burped right in my face, or how often I have silently delighted my coworkers with an expulsion through one hole or the other of the immense quantities of gas produced from the labor-intensive digestion and combustion of Korean cuisine. Koreans are also rather conspicuous about brushing their teeth three times a day since their food gives them the most horrible afterbreath, even though I think the worst breath I ever smelled came from the mouth of a subsequently unattractive Mt. Holyoke girl in my French class who had neglected to brush her teeth after consuming copious amounts of milk for breakfast. Kimchi will destroy your refrigerator, and Koreans, in fact, usually have two refrigerators in their very small homes—one for kimchi and one for everything else.
There is also this persecution complex regarding kimchi and travel. As I’ve written before, to the immense chagrin of one reader, barbaric Koreans and barbaric Americans have something in common: they only eat their own food when they travel. I’ve read stories of Koreans eating nothing but ramen noodles and smuggled kimchi for weeks at a time when exploring the very foreign world outside their own borders, and my wife has herself told me that travel officials are peculiarly discriminatory about confiscating kimchi at airports, which ranks rather highly in my collection of The Most Ridiculous Things I Have Ever Heard Someone Say To Me With Perfect Seriousness. Whether or not these stories are true makes little difference to me; it’s just good conversation.
The culture at large and the food culture are in more or less the same place: both suffer from a sense of great inferiority, and this is probably rooted in the legacy of colonialism, the shame of poverty, the shame of continuing national division, the overwhelming desire to overcome all of this and be recognized, universally, as the best. To generalize, Koreans think their food (and their culture) is the greatest (somehow the most unique), and are proud but also somewhat distressed at how foreigners cannot understand this, or are just completely unaware of how important Dokdo is, or that the written language is the most scientific, etc. Think American Exceptionalism on a smaller but far more fervent scale. The traveler living in Korea meanwhile realizes that this is all completely absurd, aware as he is, with every passing second, of the relativity of everything human.
And, besides, everything here completely ignores the fact that doenjang (pronounced den-jong) is just basically better in every possible way.