There was a brief stretch in my first month in Korea when I stopped eating kimchi. I blame culture shock.
I had not yet grown my Asian palate and had made the expat’s error of expecting certain colours and shapes to correspond to familiar tastes. I spent far too much time pondering the explosive flavours in my mouth. This was not a side dish to be gastronomically deconstructed – not for beginners anyway. Some of the best advice that fellow expats gave me was: “Just eat it, regularly, and you will start to crave it.”
I followed this seemingly-absurd advice and began to see why fermented foods were known to be addictive. It was only later, after the cravings took hold, that I allowed myself to appreciate the variety of flavours in the many kinds of kimchi on the Korean table.
I was never more ready, then, for the annual Kimchi Festival in Gwangju. Never before had I been able to so appreciate this superfood, to seek out my favourite colours and textures, and to order three different kimchi-filled lunches.
I was sorry to have missed the kimchi-making workshop, in which visitors learn to make kimchi and take home their handiwork, as well as the scavenger hunt held by the Gwangju blog each year. I spent my day at the festival sampling kimchi of every variety, and squeezing in among the connoisseurs at popular stalls.
All the lip-smacking, onomatopoiec muttering and nodding reminded me of a wine tasting. There was also a sophisticated craftsmanship being appreciated and celebrated. When I walked through the stalls selling kimchi ingredients, however, I spotted the difference. This was a craft intended to be accessible to all kitchen-commanders, while still preserving the quality of the final product.
The process is celebrated as much as the result, as many an ajumma (아줌마) produced batch after batch on site. Rubber gloves wrist-deep in pools of bright red chili paste (고추장) made for a gory image reminiscent of a butcher’s block. Kimchi never was for the faint of heart.
The Gwangju Kimchi Culture Festival runs annually in October. After filling your belly, you can check out the kimchi museum and steal a hug from a giant fluffy cabbage – if you can compete with crowds of adoring fans.