Kimchi Gives But Also Takes Away

Submitted into Contest #105 in response to: Write about a person trying to see something from another’s point of view.... view prompt


Asian American Drama Fiction

Kimchi Gives but Also Takes Away

 Bruce Friedman

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of kimchi for Koreans and other food lovers around the world despite the fact that this simple dish consists mainly of fermented cabbage, radish, and chili powder. Koreans consume it during all meals including breakfast. One of the dominant flavor notes in kimchi is the heat from the chili powder. However, chili peppers, now a standard ingredient in kimchi, were unknown in Korea until the early seventeenth century because the spice originated in the New World. A Korean poem has been uncovered dating back to the 12th century that lavishes praise on radish kimchi. It’s thus easy to understand the cultural appeal to Koreans for a food that has been part of their diet for more than a thousand years.

Like other fermented foods, kimchi improves the flavor of other foods but it’s also a source of “friendly” bacteria that improve intestinal health. In today’s food culture, kimchi is referred to as a probiotic similar to yogurt because it contains live cultures of lactobacillus and other friendly bacteria. One might conclude, hearing all of this, that kimchi could never be viewed in a negative way but history tells a slightly different story. 

I was introduced to an earlier chapter of the kimchi story by my friend Jack who was a pathologist in the U.S. Army and stationed at a military hospital in Seoul in the early 70’s. On his first day on the job, one of the Korean medical technicians in his lab tapped on his office door in the morning. He entered the room and asked Jack if he would like look at a patient stool sample under the microscope that contained something interesting. Jack scanned the slide and spotted intestinal roundworm and hookworm ova, diagnostic for an infection with these intestinal parasites. He was impressed because he previously had only seen textbook pictures of them. He asked the technician to come back with similar cases if an when he came across them. He was intrigued because such cases are rare in modern America.

Jack was attending to other business in his office when, ten minutes later, there was another knock on the door. It was the same technician as before with another stool preparation in hand. Jack again looked at it under the microscope and, as before, noted that it contained more parasite ova than he could easily count. This same scenario occurred several times during the rest of the day at which time Jack, having now learned what the parasite ova looked like, asked the tech how frequently he encountered them in stool samples. The tech replied: “All day, every day. Often two types of ova per specimen.” Jack thanked him, saying that he had seen enough but also intrigued about what he had just learned.

Jack decided to briefly look into the matter of the frequency of intestinal parasitic infections in Korea and the causes of the disease. He made immediate progress. At the time Jack was working in Korea, farmers were fertilizing their fields with night soil, human manure, which contained the ova of intestinal parasites. Bits of human fertilizer stuck to the cabbage and daikon in the farm fields. These vegetables were then harvested and used to make kimchi in Korean homes. The fermentation process did not involve any cooking and thus did not destroy the parasite eggs on the vegetables. As a result, a high percentage of Koreans had worms cavorting in their intestines because of their daily diet of kimchi. 

In both rural and even urban areas in Korea decades ago, the intestinal parasitic infection rate for the population approached 100%. Aware of this problem and the health consequences, the Korean government launched a “deworming” campaign that eliminated the problem. The reputation hit to kimchi was short-lived, if it even occurred at all, and and the dish continued to be a staple in the daily diet of most Koreans and, increasingly, others around the world. All kimchi these days is totally and reliably safe.

I have shared with you this earlier history of kimchi as background information for a recent chat I had with my friend Dae-Hyun Cho that also involved kimchi. He and his family had immigrated to the U.S. from Korea in the early 1990’s. He was an engineer who worked with me at a small firm in our town. We had a friendly relationship and would often swap family stories during coffee breaks and lunch. He shared a story one day involving his oldest American-born son who was dating a Korean-American girl. I asked him how he and his wife liked her. “Pretty good,” he said, “but we have a problem with her. It would be helpful for me if I could discuss it with you to get your reaction. She’s causing tension in the family and I am not sure that it can be resolved.”

“My wife and I were invited to the girl’s apartment in town a couple of weeks ago that she had cooked dinner for us.” He continued: “We were pleased that she was wiling to reach out in this way and allow us to spend a quiet evening getting to know her.” As part of the meal, of course, she served kimchi. She told us in a casual and unselfconscious way when bringing the food to the table that she had bought it at the grocery store. “My wife and I immediately thought that she should have served us kimchi that she had made with her own hands.” He took a short, quick breath as if this conclusion had taken the wind out of his sails. I immediately realized that we were moving into culturally loaded territory and that I needed to move slowly.

I must confess that I was puzzled by the fact that the girlfriend’s purchase of kimchi from the store was a source of concern for the Cho’s. I shop frequently in Asian stores; bottles of kimchi always seemed to be flying off the shelves. Someone must have been buying and enjoying it, particularly Koreans, without guilt. 

I then, impulsively, decided to move farther out on this limb by asking Cho: “So, can I assume the your wife makes all of the kimchi that you eat at home?” Cho shook his head quickly and laughed. “No, of course not. My wife would kill me if I asked her to make kimchi from scratch. He added: “Her voting down such an idea would pale by comparison to the reaction of our neighbors who would probably kill me because of the smell from the kimchi from our back porch.”

His response did not help me much; I continued to be confused. Kim appeared to be holding his son’s girlfriend to a standard that he and his family would never measure up to. Rather than put a question to him directly about this matter, however, I quipped that I obviously did not understand the cultural value of kimchi to Koreans which was obviously considered to be much more than a condiment to accompany rice and bulgogi. I then asked him to explain this to me.

He stood up, shaking his head slowly, and replied in this way: “Kimchi itself is only pickled cabbage or radish. Perhaps similar to the importance of sauerkraut, another fermented food, for Germans. They would miss it if were to be taken away but they would not march in the streets as a result. Germans would still be Germans if sauerkraut disappeared. KIMCHI, upper-case letters, is a totally different matter. It has always been the “K” in Korea.

Cho then launched into an explanation about “upper-case” KIMCHI which in the minds of most Koreans, is both a cultural symbol and meaningful icon. “It represents much more than merely fermented vegetables. It’s an essential element in our culture, personifying a key part of our ethnicity. No one can copy or culturally appropriate it. It shapes our identity. 

“The Korean peninsula was a route over the centuries for the Chinese to march south and the Japanese to march north, pillaging as they went. Korea was always a small nation and not a military power like China and Japan. We Koreans could not stop our enemies from marching up and down our country. It’s only been in the 21st century when we have been able to pursue our true destiny; grit, perseverance, and hard work has become more important in this world than military power. Kimchi has become a kind of metaphor for the modern success of Koreans in global trade and politics.”

“Ummmm,” I stammered. “I appreciate all that you are saying but, obviously, you no longer live in Korea. I believe in the social cohesion of ethnic groups but it can’t be maintained with the same intensity in the multicultural U.S. And if you think it can, you’ll be facing some disappointments. Cho responded: “Kimchi has continued to be symbol of the persistence of Korean culture around the world. We want to ensure that our ‘perhaps’ new daughter-in-law is OK with this.”

* * * * 

It was several weeks before I encountered Cho again in the lunchroom at work. I had definitely thought about our kimchi discussions over these weeks and was interested in finding out whether his little “kimchi war” had been put to rest. We engaged in casual discussion for a few minutes until I raised the issue of his son’s girlfriend again. “What happening with her,” I asked tentatively. Cho replied: “My wife and I took up the issue with our son at dinner on a recent recent night. We told him that the best plan for him, and for us his parents, was for him to dump her, saying that she was not suitable because of her possible lack of respect for Korean culture.”

“Don’t keep me in suspense,” I said. “How did he respond? Cho responded: “Our son apologized but said that our opinion of her regarding kimchi will have no influence on him and that he would continue to date her despite our objections.”

“This was certainly not the response we expected from our son where filial obedience has always been expected,” Cho added. “It was then that we again and reluctantly understood that he has become a different person compared to us — he had grown up as an American with partial, but not complete, adoption of Korean customs.”

He continued: “My wife and I actually like his girlfriend despite the tension that has come out during this kimchi caper. We have decided to just wait and see what happens in their relationship. Oh, and also, my wife has started to make her own kimchi at home as a result of these problems. She’s obviously trying to make a point that may no longer be relevant.”

“Isn’t that a lot of extra work in the kitchen for her,” I asked.

“Sure it is,” he said quickly, but it’s her decision. I would not personally take the time to do it but, of course, I don’t even know how to make the dish. And besides, that’s woman’s work.”

August 02, 2021 23:33

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