Sunday, December 1, 2013

Seeing Red: A Short History of Korean Chili

This 20-pound batch of pogi kimchee will be ready by mid-December—quartered heads of cabbage are brined, stuffed with radish and scallions, then smothered in Korean chili paste (gochuchang) then cold-fermented for about five to six weeks. Most people are familiar with mak kimchee, made with chopped-up salad-sytle Napa cabbage. I perfer pogi kimchee; it has more layers of flavor.

I gave a lecture at the Mulberry Street Library yesterday. Through the magic of PowerPoint I demonstrated my cookbook project and the process of lactic acid fermentation. There’s a popular assumption that kimchee is a vegetarian-vegan food. Although my kimchee is in fact vegan, authentic kimchee employs refined anchovy sauce, dried shrimp, raw oysters and in some regions of Korea the use bone marrow or raw pheasant meat. In part it is ying-yang philosophy of eating with the deeper flavors of kimchee derived from a source protein. I use chitin from mushrooms, the same protein found in shellfish. But two kimchee questions come up often: Does kimchee have to be so spicy? Does it have to be salty?

Salt is ubiquitous to the lacto-fermentation process; it conditions plant matter by breaking the cell walls and it creates a suitable environment for lactobacillus to colonize and populate. As recently reported in the Journal of American Medical Association, “A new report finds no evidence that drastic reductions of dietary salt reduce the risk of myocardial infarction, stroke or death.” So regular dietary salt is not terrible for our diet. Being a savory guy, I welcome this news.

There are many varieties of Korean kimchee that do not use pepper flakes. White kimchee (beak) uses the same fermentation method, but without pepper—same as with water kimchee (mul) which is served as a refreshing, cold summer soup. One person at the lecture said she uses paprika because her husband can no longer have spicy foods; it’s not a bad idea, there are so many components to the flavor of kimchee, heat is just one of them. I’ve tried many combinations and types of dried chili, including the Syrian Aleppo pepper. But there is no substitution for dried, coarsely ground Korean pepper (gochucaru); it’s sweet and hot with a grassy, smoked fragrance.The texture is never bone dry, the flakes are always soft and pliable.

In Korea’s culinary history, special foods were dyed magenta or red using plants such as Cock’s Comb seed. The introduction of chili is attributed to the Japanese invasion of the Korean peninsula; the Japanese openly traded with the Portuguese who brought New World foods such as eggplant, sweet potato, corn, squash and chili. Some dispute is taken since Europe and continental China traded goods regularly via the Silk Road (aka, the Suli)—most notably after the Oriental expedition of Marco Polo (1271-1292).

But the use of fresh and dried chili in Korean cuisine occurred more recently, circa 1590. Since most Korean terrain is mountainous and not ideal for agriculture, early Koreans relied on salt-preserved foods to sustain themselves during the long winter months. Korean food diversified during their Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) with the addition of fresh and dried chilies. Food from that time forward was prepared and  preserved with red pepper. The addition of using a source of protein in kimchee fermentation is noted the 1670s. In the 1800s fermented fish sauce became more popular (source: “Gyuhab Cheongseo”). The use of seafood further inland also marked people of wealthy class. Still popular to this day, the whole-head cabbage style of kimchee came about in the 1800s. Gochucaru is a very unique chili paste that has become the corner stone of Korean cuisine; some pastes are fermented and some fresh. Korea’s ingenuity borne of survival has bloomed into a culinary and social aesthetic that separates them from their other Asian countries. Although not all kimchee is spicy and red-hot, it’s the flavor that I crave the most.

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