I was 9 years old the first time I ate kimchi. I remember being nervous, noting that mine was one of three blonde heads peeking out in a sea of black hair at a Korean restaurant. Then I glanced over at my father and immediately felt reassured. Usually a stern, stoic man, he looked positively exuberant tucking into his plate of bulgogi and his favorite Korean condiment, kimchi.
Kimchi, the ubiquitous Korean side dish made from napa cabbage, is prepared by salting cabbage; marinating it in red pepper, garlic and other seasonings; and leaving it to ferment for weeks. The final product is strong and distinct, spicy, sour and pungent all at once. I was not a big fan after my first taste.
Yet something drew me back to it, enticing me to buy another jar every once in a while, just in case something in me had changed. Each time, I hoped that I would like it, but I was always disappointed, and my father would end up eating the entire jar. Growing up, I never understood him, or his love of kimchi.
For the longest time, I wondered why I felt compelled to keep returning to this seemingly inaccessible dish. Was it because of my unusual childhood obsession with spicy food? My lifelong sense of culinary adventure? A rebellious adolescent bid for independence, manifested in my stubborn consumption of an exotic jarred condiment?
Now, though, I look back at my young self, standing in the glow of my open refrigerator, stretching my arm toward the back, where my garlicky-smelling jar had been relegated.
And I see now that I was, in fact, reaching for something else entirely, trying to forge a connection through one of the precious few points where my father’s interests overlapped with mine. I thought, “If I could just learn to like kimchi … ,” though I never knew how that thought was supposed to end.
Now, I’ve embraced kimchi as one of my favorite foods, putting it on practically everything. I’ve also embraced my relationship with the man who introduced me to kimchi. That’s why my favorite way to eat it is the same as my father’s: straight out of the jar.
Now, I love each and every bite, relishing the sourness, savoring the painful burn, finding beauty in the pungent, angry-looking cabbage leaves, and thinking of the man who taught me to appreciate these qualities, in food and in life. And I smile to myself as I eat, knowing that if I don’t finish the jar, my dad certainly will.
Garrett Miller is a freelance writer, food blogger and graduate of Los Altos High School and UC Santa Cruz. For more of his comfort-food recipes, visit www.noodletherapy.com.
Ways to enjoy kimchi
• As a condiment to grilled or broiled red meats, it cuts through the fatty richness and gives great complementary acidity and spice.
• Add it into quesadillas, tacos and other Mexican foods for a do-it-yourself version of the Korean-Latin fusion popularized by Roy Choi.
• Chop it and mix it with sliced scallions and put it on a hot dog – it’s like a whole new kind of relish.
• Scatter it over fried or steamed rice. Top it with a poached egg for a tasty, well-rounded breakfast.
• Use it to make kimchi jjigae, a popular Korean kimchi and tofu stew whose heat (temperature and spicewise) will warm you up on a chilly day. You can find a recipe at www.kimchichronicles.tv/recipes/kimchi-jjigae-kimchi-stew.