I ducked into the nearest branch of Dunkin Donuts in order to escape the onslaught of the ubiquitous kimchi. In Korea’s capital, Seoul, local food traditions are very strong. During the four days of my stay, every meal featured the highly distinctive Korean cuisine. Even at the breakfast buffet at the hotel I stayed in, I could if I wanted to, have rice porridge with kimchi. I never did want to, healthy as kimchi is. The IP Boutique hotel, a funky west meets kitsch monument, had little that was traditionally Korean about it: certainly not the life-size cactus made out of mirrors that dominated the lobby. But the kimchi at the buffet was quintessentially Korean.
Korean food, according to nutritionists, is one of the most healthy cuisines in the world. Plenty of vegetables, the optimum balance between the major food groups, hardly any oil, virtually no deep-frying, and more fermented foods than almost any other cuisine all go towards making the Koreans slim and fresh-faced. Kimchi, the vegetable that is also a fermented pickle, is central to the cuisine. It comes in no fewer than two hundred varieties. Widely considered one of the superfoods on the planet, it dominates the cuisine of this corner of South East Asia like no other single ingredient. If you’ve only tried the freebie that every Chinese restaurant in India serves as a salad, you’ve not even got a distant approximation of the real thing.
Kimchi multitasks as a pickle, a vegetable and a salad in a Korean meal. You can use kimchi to make fried rice, a soup, even a stew. You cannot have a Korean meal without kimchi, so central is it to the cuisine. It is made with almost any vegetable, Chinese cabbage being the most common. Han, our youthful guide informed us that making kimchi is simplicity itself: all you need is a mixture of the starchy water that has been used to boil rice, together with garlic, salt and chilli powder. In warm conditions, the rice starch ferments slightly and your kimchi is ready. Han’s own family make kimchi two or three times a week.
However, by the fourth day of my trip, I did want to escape the ubiquitous charms of Korea’s national dish, and went to a Dunkin Donuts. Kimchi was to follow me there too: along with the cream cheese bagels and cinnamon donuts, there, in deference to the local palate, were kimchi croquettes!
So strongly does this wonder vegetable dominate the culinary landscape of the country, that even in Hahoe, the picture-perfect village in the south-eastern province of Gyeongju, every last village home had courtyards where large earthenware jars were exposed to the sun. Each of South Korea’s provinces has their own character; Gyeongju contains an unfairly high ratio of palaces, Buddhist temples and grottoes and archaeological wonders of an ancient civilization. Quite charmingly, one of the most renowned treasures of the province is, not a king’s palace or a thousand year old temple, but a village! One of the few single clan villages in the country, all the 220 souls who lived in the 120 houses shared the surname Ryu. While there was no sign telling outsiders to keep out, no non-Ryu had ever sought residence in Hahoe in all its 1,000 year history.
The name of the village was itself poetic. Meaning “coiled around the river”, the River Nakdong did indeed curl itself like a tendril in an artist’s watercolour around the cluster of houses. I loved the simplicity. Wooden beams, rice paper window panes, monochromatic exteriors the colour of dust and only the gleam of dark brown vats in the courtyards to break the monotony. During our hour long ramble of the village, all we saw was one old crone wearing an everyday version of the hanbok, the formal national costume which you’ll never see city ladies wearing.
Each of the houses was numbered for convenience: most of the residents are agriculturists, with a sprinkling having turned their homes into guest houses and home-stays. There are even one or two restaurants, but because Hahoe Village is so high-profile, (films and soap-operas are shot here regularly because of the dream settings) I couldn’t help but sympathize with the locals. From morn to night, they are reduced to either hiding in their houses or facing an onslaught of hundreds if not thousands of curious sight-seers.
The only semblance of normalcy in Hahoe was the kimchi making activity in the courtyards. Of course no self-respecting resident would mix the ingredients in full view of dozens of Nikons, clicking away furiously, but the telltale glazed jars in the courtyards told their own story.
Guides in China’s Ming Tombs outside Beijing tell of the perfect feng shui that exists in the place: the harmony between earth, mountain and water has to be optimal. Unlike our home-grown feng-shui “experts”, brass turtles and copper coins have little, if anything, to do with the balance of nature. China’s guides tell visitors that the reason why the Ming dynasty lasted so long was because of feng shui. The Koreans have a similar theory about Hahoe. The combination of the curling river, surrounding rice paddies, groves of Korean pine trees and a rock cliff on the far side of the river gave Hahoe an unreal appearance, as if it had been painted by an imaginative artist. It is also the reason that is cited for the centuries of its existence.
The lone Japanese member of our international group kept commenting about how rural yet essentially Japanese the countryside of Korea looked. We would pass mile upon mile of perfectly flat rice paddies for hours and then suddenly chance upon low, rolling hills. Gyeongju was the province where the greater part of our trip was centered, had intermittent villages, each of which had traditional tiled roofs with an upward sweep at the corners. The nearer we drove to capital Seoul, the more “ordinary” the houses. In Seoul itself, only the Changdeokgung Palace and its satellite buildings were traditional. Everything else was brand new and at least 40 stories high.
When I departed from Incheon Airport, I heaved a sigh of relief. “No more kimchi” I silently applauded. How wrong I was. The only interesting film in the inflight entertainment was a compelling story about how a pretty young girl breaks into the world of male chefs. Her secret weapon? Kimchi just like her grandmother made!