Why kimchi is Irish comfort food

the-kimchi-cookbookThe strong resemblances between Ireland and Korea may account for my obsession with all things Korean – particularly cinema and food – but do these similarities exist on a more personal level? Reading Lauryn Chun’s Kimchi Cookbook, I am even more convinced that somewhere back along the line, the two groups were one, and split apart, maybe when Atlantis sank.

In her book, Lauryn Chun writes about the comfort food of her Seoul childhood – “Suddenly it all made sense – why I was so curiously drawn to food and wine, my secret fascination when the deep smell of an aged wine elicited a faint memory of roasted soybeans…that made me recall the comforting memories of my childhood in Seoul, Korea.”

And suddenly it does all make sense – comfort food is that food that reminds you of when you felt comforted and nurtured in childhood – which is probably why my particular comfort food is cabbage. My grandmother Jess had a knack for making children feel comforted and nurtured. She wasn’t a great cook, but she cooked a lot of cabbage.

These days I prefer it stir fried to boiled, but the smell of cabbage always makes me feel comforted. Even eating it raw has the same effect, because she always gave me the hard stalk from the centre of the cabbage to chew on.

It’s extraordinary that Lauryn (born in Seoul, Korea) and I (born in Cobh, Ireland) share a comfort food. Thousands of miles apart, but united by the same pungent vegetable, and memories of happy moments in childhood. I came to kimchi late in life, thinking it was probably what my elders used to call ‘an acquired taste’ – in other words, no one in their right minds could just naturally take to it.

In my mind I likened it to sauerkraut (pickled cabbage), which I have never liked. But kimchi is quite something else – spicy, cheeky and yes – comforting. It warms the stomach and the heart. (Now I am yearning for a gingered pork and kimchi riceburger from Mosburger – yum!)

Anyway, this book is basically everything you ever wanted to know about making kimchi at home, from ‘is it even possible?’ to ‘can I make instant kimchi with apples, persimmons and pears?’ Well, of course it’s possible – Koreans have been doing it for centuries – and yes, you can and it looks lush.

In her introduction to the recipes, Lauryn Chun writes movingly about her early childhood in Seoul, and growing up in the very different culture of Southern California, where her mother cautioned not to eat kimchi in public or share it with her American friends because they might be offended by its malodorous nature. I think I went through the same thing with pig’s feet when I moved to England as a child.

Similarly, it was discovering diverse food cultures elsewhere that did away with any self consciousness about her own food culture and awakened her love of food. Me too. Discovering Spanish, French and Middle Eastern cuisines opened my mind to new tastes, and my heart to old comforting memories. One thing we all share, world wide, is an attachment to the food we grew up with, and a feeling of being comforted by familiar tastes.

Lauryn’s mother operates the Korean restaurant Mother-in-law’s Kitchen in California, and Lauryn makes and sells Mother-in-law’s Kimchi (MILKimchi) using the restaurant’s own recipe, so the recipes’ pedigrees are impeccable.

Ah the recipes! I didn’t know kimchi could be so versatile.There are recipes for each of the four seasons, from long brined and complex in winter and autumn, to short brined and simple for summer and spring. For example, instant red leaf lettuce kimchi is more of a quick salad that can be served with barbequed meat.

The autumn sees kimjang, the cabbage harvest and annual kimchi making, with the abundance of the season reflected in the recipes – butternut squash kimchi, kimchi with persimmon and dates, traditional napa kimchi, daikon kimchi and the  recipe used by Mother In Law Kitchen. Then there are recipes for using kimchi in cooking, such as Eggs Benedict with Kimchi Hollandaise.

There is so much to take in, it is impossible to mention it all here. The Kimchi Cookbook is a great read as well as a great cookbook.

*If you want to know more about the Korean/Irish connection check out The Irish Association  of Korea, and the Irish Embassy in Korea.

You can buy MILKimchi and DIY kimchi kits at Lauryn Chun’s website.