Most Koreans live in apartments. Many live in the enormous blocks that crowd the suburbs of the vast conurbation that is Seoul, the usual point of entrance for a first time visitor to this bustling country. Closer inspection reveals that most apartments have a small balcony. On each balcony will be some pottery or tall plastic barrels.
Sooner or later the visitor will wonder as to the contents of these pots. They invariably contain Kimchee. Kimchee is a pickled vegetable, the most common being the oriental 'chinese cabbage' (Paechu), pickled in chilli, garlic and ginger. It is ubiquitous in Korea, on every table for every meal. Each family, each restaurant, will have their own recipe, handed down through generations, each subtly unique. To the westerner they will, initially, all taste the same - hot! Extraordinarily hot!
The Making of Kimchee
All kimchees are prepared in a similar way. A paste is made by grinding red chilli pepper, and then adding garlic, ginger, shrimp paste and a variety of other spices. The type of chilli pepper is very important. You cannot, for example, use an Indian chilli powder. It must come from a pepper of a particular variety, grown only in Korea and parts of China and Japan. The chosen vegetable is salted, and then covered with the paste. In the case of cabbage, the paste is inserted between the leaves of a quarter cabbage. It is very labour intensive; the process cannot be easily mechanised. The cabbage, or other vegetable, is then pressed into a large container - perhaps the balcony pots - covered with a weighted lid to continue the pressure, and is left for a period of time, perhaps months, either in the fridge, outside on the balcony, or, traditionally, buried in the ground which is very cold in winter.
The Eating of Kimchee
When offered Kimchee, the Westerner has a dilemma. To treat it with circumspection would be impolite - this delicacy is in the life-blood of your host. But, to wolf down with abandon will be painful in the extreme and puts the lining of your mouth at risk. The visitor would be well advised to look on the table, usually covered with many small dishes, for kimchees made with small cucumbers, or with white radish, or bean sprouts, as these tend to be less hot than the cabbage type. Also be sure to locate the bowl of plain boiled rice. If you do find the taste too hot, plain rice will extinguish the flames better and quicker than water or the barley tea you will most probably be drinking. In the summer, there may be a kimchee available without chilli, but with vinegar and pine-nuts. This type tastes fresh and is delicious, or, if not, at least mild.
Once initiated, the visitor will begin to appreciate the differences between kimchees, will note the superiority of home made varieties, and will learn to avoid the MSG1 sheen of factory made versions. Nothing will please your hosts more than a full appreciation of 'their' kimchee. Enjoy!