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Friday, January 9, 2009

Kimchi and Me: Part I

Following the naming convention of my Frugal Mom's post "Madoff and Me," I would like to present the first of a two part homage to one of the greatest frugal foods on the planet.

One of the things that I enjoy the most is food, and especially ethnic cuisine. While many people might assume that enjoying exotic cuisine is incompatible with a frugal lifestyle—even eating out in a mediocre restaurant regularly adds up to a substantial sum—nothing could be further from the truth. Though I have been an adventurous eater since an early age, one of my first major forays into food came while I was living away from home during high school. While there, a surprising number of my friends were Korean and in addition to being great friends, they also had great moms who would send them back to school with plastic containers filled with succulent beef, pungent fish, and spicy orange strips of dried squid. Many a night was spent with ten people packed into an already small dorm room passing around a pair of communal chopsticks, a bowl of steaming rice, and the plastic containers of delicious Korean dishes while we played tien-len (a Vietnamese card game to add to the diversity). Just so it’s clear I wasn’t a total mooch, every now and then I would cook up some couscous which we would then top with Rooster Sauce, a spicy yet sweet chili and garlic sauce of South Asian origin.

One Korean dish, however, was clearly the king of dishes: the ubiquitous kimchi. This is the Korean national dish, a simple blend of cabbage, fermented fish paste, garlic, and copious quantities of red pepper. The flavors kind of sum up the tenets of Korean cuisine; left to ferment for a few days before serving the cabbage softens—but still retains a distinctly fresh crunch—and takes on a complex flavor that is sour, salty, spicy, and most of all, deeply satisfying. Kimchi is also versatile: it is served as a side dish at every meal but also lends itself to many dishes. Mixed into stir-fried rice it adds body and flavor and when the kimchi gets too old (soft and too powerfully fermented to eat by itself) it is thrown into pork broth with bits of tofu, pork, and potatoes to make kimchi jiggae, an incredibly delicious stew.

While in school, I relied on my Korean friends for a steady supply of this incredible dish and during breaks from school, I would have to live without or drive to the Westbank (across the Mississippi from New Orleans) to buy 5 gallon jars of kimchi from the Asian groceries. All of this kimchi love (and friendship of course) culminated in a month long trip to Korea during the summer of 2008 with two of my best friends from high school. For thirty days I ate kimchi breakfast, lunch, and dinner and I learned that I had merely sampled the tip of the kimchi iceberg; while in Korea I ate regular cabbage kimchi, daikon radish kimchi, green onion kimchi, bok choy kimchi, fried kimchi pancakes, kimchi omelettes, kimchi served hot and cold, spicy kimchi and sweet kimchi. There is a kimchi for every occasion, season, or palate.


Logan Leger said...

It's interesting, but I believe the concentration of Koreans in our version of the Colors was the same as yours. I've had kimchi on a few occasions, but it's never taken me like it has you.

You're far more adventurous than anyone I know regarding food.

Over the Cubicle Wall said...

I am a fan of kimchi myself. Anything with lots of red pepper is good in my book.

Chance said...

'Kay, now I'm drooling. You'd better tell us how to make it in Part II or there is gonna be a problem. Kimchi is one of the greatest fruglista foods of all time and I am totally jonesing for some RIGHT NOW...Great post!

Frugal Scholar said...

I don't have the exact recipe, but I found a scrap of paper with the ingredients: 2 cabbages, 1 cup plus 1 TBS Kosher salt, water, garlic, ginger, 1/4 cup fish sauce, green onions, red pepper flakes, 1 tsp sugar.

We made it twice and consulted several recipes. I think the recipe is pretty flexible.

Warning: when you open the jar of kimchi, your whole kitchen will smell like rotting cabbage.

Hopefully, the cook (my son) will tell us how he did it.

Frugal Scholar said...

Frugal Son finally responding to the comments.
@Logan: Kimchi can grow on you I promise! Thank you for the compliment, it is boosting my foodie self-esteem.
@Cubicle: It's nice to see another fan of the dish. Haven't you noticed that Korean food is very underrepresented in America?
@Chance: Your wish has been granted. The recipe is up at the end of Part II. Try it out and let me know what your thoughts on it are. It's amazing how ingredients as humble as cabbage, pepper, garlic, and a few other things can come together to make something so wonderful and so cheap!