Friday, September 7, 2012

My History with Kimchee

I'm not going to lie. The first time I tasted kimchee (also spelled kimchi), I thought I was going to die. I don't mean it was nasty, which it most certainly was, I mean I thought a violent death preceded by massive amounts of vomiting and diarrhea would happen as a
                                                             result of the one tiny bite I
                                                             managed to take.

This was at U. City Grill, a tiny diner-in my hometown of St. Louis. Unlike the runny eggs and greasy hashbrowns which are usually slid down the counters to the patrons of most diners of this type, this one serves Korean dishes only. Here you can get your bibimbap, bulgogi, and a side of kimchee prepared by a grimacing Korean man in his 40s, the sole owner and employee.

It was here that my friend Helena suggested I come to taste Korean cuisine for the first time. This in preparation for my upcoming trip to Korea where I'd be teaching for one year. I was terrified of what I imagined to be the spiciest food on the planet, my gut still reeling from putting my tongue on the pepper juice dispenser at Steak n- Shake 25 years earlier in a dare.

Helena assured me I'd be okay. And I thought I might. Until the kimchee was served.

It looked like ass. It smelled like assier-ass. And I was afraid. I don't mean I didn't feel like eating it. I mean I was full of terror.

The thing is- I really want to fit in in Korea. I want to eat what's served to me and I want to like it. Genuinely like it. I want the Korean people to smile and nod their heads and take me in as one of their own, albeit a freckly, red-headed, fuzzy-armed one of their own. So I decided then and there I'd force myself to like kimchee. I'd just FORCE it to happen, one little bite at a time.

Have you ever decided to take some cabbage and put it in the ground to ferment and then add a shitload of spicy stuff to it until it's nearly inedible? Yes? Then you've made yourself some kimchee.  At least, that's how I felt about it at first. My first impressions of my first tiny bite? It was like a cold, spicy, hard-to-chew insole of the nasty kid in gym class. I was screwed. The Korean people would never like me.

A few nights before leaving for Korea, I tried it again. This time I was with a host of good friends and felt like I had moral support. 

Conclusion: it still tasted like ass. 
But I kept my thoughts to myself. Progress.

When I got to Korea, I spent the first week or so at a University in Jeonju with a few hundred other teachers. Here, kimchee was served with every meal- breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Considering all of the meals were about the same, the photo on the right could be either of the above. Near my spoon, I'd like you to notice, is a sizeable bit of kimchee. I considered this my kimchee basic training, and I'd be damned if I wouldn't be able to eat it in front of my Korean co-workers by the time our orientation was over.

First meal at school. I teach in 3 middle schools and all use these prison-esque trays. You can bet your kimchee-butt that one of those little compartments at the top will be filled with kimchee, as the middle one is in this photo. Guess who ate the shit out of that kimchee? I did. Being giggled about and told my face was red like an apple was just part of the process. I was doing it, I was. BOO-YAH, KIMCHEE! Take that!

By several school meals in, I was not only managing to make the kimchee go down, I was enjoying the mouth-burning, nose-running sensation I got after every lunch. I felt alive, somehow. Not in the I'm about to have explosive diarrhea alive, but the good kind. The my-insides-feel-all-healthy-and-this-kimchee-is-doing-miracles kind of alive. Could it be? I think I'm beginning to like kimchee!

When eating out, especially with a group, it's typical to be served many little sides with your meal. Lots of pickled things, some questionably-sized mini bird eggs, kimchee pancackes, fish cakes, all types of business. I willingly go for the kimchee and it's kimchee buddies, such as the pancakes. I don't sweat and turn red like I used to, and I think kimchee is pretty darned yummy.

I recently went exploring in a nearby city about an hour away. Although it took me going to 4 restaurants before I could find one to serve me (lost in translastion?) I finally got seated in a little mom and pop restaurant owned by a wonderful couple who didn't speak much English. When they set the little bowl of kimchee on my table, I willingly gobbled it up. They brought out more kimchee. I ate that, too. This time, the wife sat at my table and watched me eat it, smiling warmly the entire time.

I can't believe I like kimchee. And the Korean people? Well, I feel like Sally Field over here. "[They] like me! [They] really, really like me!"And I like their kimchee. Go figure.


  1. It's beginning to look a lot like kimchee!

  2. I take heart from this story. Im afraid of kimchee, too.

    Glad you have a blog!

  3. i want to come and eat lots of kimchee...miss you!!!!!!!!!!