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Kimchi and Me: One Girl’s Story and Recipe

By F+

Illustration by Priyoshi Kapur.

From the age of two, I began eating kimchi — or so I am told.

I grew up under the roof of my grandmother’s house for the first years of my life when both my parents were working, so my taste became accustomed to the traditional foods of my grandmother. Common dishes were rice with fried mackerel, doenjang-jjigae (soybean paste stew), tofu kangjung (general Tso’s tofu), and sujebi (hand-pulled dough soup).

At the age of four, I moved to England. My Korean lunches were quickly replaced with jam sandwiches in order to avoid mean remarks and looks of disgust by the British girls in the school lunchroom. I thought by eating the same food I could blend in, so every day for the next four years, my lunchbox contained the same items: strawberry jam sandwiched between two slices of white bread with the edges chopped off and an orange Capri-sun.

After years of toting the same food, I was delighted when I returned to Korea to discover the changing menu served at school. Everyone ate the same plate of food so there was no need to be self-conscious. Every day, I could indulge in different Korean dishes: kimchi soup, spicy stir-fried pork, glutinous anchovies, rice  — and always, always a side of kimchi. But a few years later, my dad’s company sent us abroad again, so it was goodbye to these school lunches all too soon.

When I arrived in Australia, I reverted to sandwiches, except this time my mother experimented with ham and potato salad as filling. This new sandwich was even more unappetizing once it was squished against the books in my bag and the bread became soggy from the potato salad. The days that my mother packed me jumuk-bap (rice balls) were special, but I did not look forward to eating them — I hid them in my bag and quickly popped them in my mouth. I didn’t want to seem different.

I expected the same thing to happen when I came to Chicago. As I was packing, my dad asked if I wanted to take some individually packaged kimchi, but I refused; I didn’t want to gross out my roommates.

Naturally, I was surprised and pleased to see an open acceptance of Asian foods when I got here. I find it amusing when people exclaim that they “love kimchi.” Certainly, I am delighted; but to Koreans, kimchi is only a side dish or an ingredient; no one says they “love” kimchi, of all things.

It is even more surprising to see menu items like kimchi fries! kimchi burgers! pancakes with kimchi! and to see kimchi rising to a popular ingredient in high-end American restaurants. I have not tried these menu items myself so I cannot say how they taste. My American ex-roommate used to put kimchi in her noodles and vegetable egg fried rice.

There are traditional ways to cook kimchi, of course, and these dishes, such as duruchigi can be made without kimchi, but certainly, the kimchi enhances the flavor. So click here for a recipe for duruchigi, straight from my kitchen. Try your hand at a Korean recipe and truly enjoy the flavor of kimchi with fried pork belly!

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