Red Hot Mamas Playing It CoolMothers teach their children to walk, to talk, to count and to read. But how does a loving Korean mother ever teach her child to eat blazing hot kim-chi, without her son or daughter bursting into tears?.
The answer is "very slowly," with the job left on occasion to grandparents and kindergarten teachers. It turns out that after some practice, children can make the experience into a sort of Red Pepper Olympics.
How early a child is introduced to spicy food depends on a household's eating habits. In homes where spicy food is always on the table, children are more likely to begin eating such food from an early age. But today, fewer young mothers are making kimchi and other traditional dishes that are often time-consuming to prepare. Instead, the mothers are relying on ready-made foods often adapted from Western dishes. So children are being less exposed to spices at home.
"In my class of 20 three-year-olds, about half could not eat kimchi at the beginning of the school year," says Yun Hyun-gu, a teacher at Sangmyung University Kindergarten in Hongji-dong, Seoul. To give the children a taste of the real Korea, kimchi is provided at every lunch and the children are gently coaxed into trying it. While a couple of Ms. Yun's charges balked at the idea, most were ready to try it after rinsing out the chili flakes in water or soup.
"We are now near the end of the school year and everyone is eating kimchi," Ms. Yun says. So how does she do it? "I use a lot of praise and encour-agement," Ms. Yun explains. "Children are naturally competitive, so if I praise the children who eat kimchi, the more timid ones are encouraged to try. Once they have had a few tries, the resistance is gone."
Ms. Yun says children whose grandparents or nannies look after them are more likely to have begun eating kimchi before they start kindergarten. "Young stay-at-home mothers are less likely to have introduced the children to spicy food," she says.
How has this situation come about? Health concerns may be one reason. Park Chung-min, a mother of two girls, aged four and eight, says: "I never made it an issue that my daughters eat kimchi. There are now a lot more choices in terms of fresh vegetables that are high in vitamins and fiber year 'round compared with, say, 20 years ago. If my daughters do not like eating spicy food, so be it." Indeed, mothers' preferences play a significant role in when children start eating spicy food.
"From the beginning I was adamant about feeding Korean food to my children because I believe Korean food is better for them," says Oh Suzanna, 42, an American with a Korean husband. Ms. Oh was introduced to Korean food 20 years ago when she arrived as a Peace Corps volunteer. She and her husband have a son aged 26 months and a daughter aged three-and-a-half years.
Ms. Oh started her children on Korean food as soon as they began eating solids. Her nannies and mother-in-law supply kkakdugi, a milder version of kimchi. "At our table we have a vari-ety of kimchi, differing in spiciness," says Ms. Oh. "The kkakdugi (made from radishes cut into small pieces) is for the children. The spicier kind is for my husband and myself."
Although Ms. Park did not force her daughters to eat kimchi at home, when the time came, they were ready to give it a try. Younger daughter Cho Kyung-suh, 4, began to eat kimchi when it was served as part of lunch when she started play school last year. "It was really hot at first, and I had to drink lots of water afterward," says Kyung-suh. "But I saw my friends eating it and I didn't want to be a loser." Being able to eat spicy food seems to imply being grown-up, at least for young children in Korea. "Yes, it makes my eyes water and sets my mouth on fire, but I feel like a grown-up when I eat it," said six-year-old Cho Min.
Once the little ones pass this rite of passage, do they become lifetime eaters of fiery food? This seems to be the case, judging by the popularity of spicy snacks and ramyeon (instant noo-dles). Even potato chips, originally a Western food, are flavored with gochujangor chili paste. A newly launched ramen not only tastes extra hot but looks like it has been set on fire. The noodles are bright red.
Although children these days may start eating spicy food at a later age, all indications are that hot and spicy food still rules in Korea. Annual per capita consumption of chili has held steady at 2.2 to 2.4 kilograms over the last 10 years, according to Agricultural Fish-ery Marketing Corp. statistics.
In fact, indications are that people are craving ever more spicy stuff. For example, a major ramyeon and snack maker, Nong Shim Co., introduced its original hot ramyeon, called "Shin Ramyeon" ? "shin" meaning hot and spicy ? in 1986. It has been a steady best-seller ever since.
"We tried to revive the milder beef-flavored ramyeon a few years ago but it flopped," says public relations manager Cho Sung-hyung. Indeed, once the palate has grown accustomed to spicy food, it seems there is no turning back.
The tendency towards increasingly spicier food can also be seen in the ready-made gochujang that is added to many Korean dishes. Made the traditional way, gochujang is a deep, dark red, but people shunned this color. "People wanted the gochujang to be redder and spicier, so we had to modify the way we ferment it," says Chung Young-sup, marketing officer at Dae-sang Corp. He suggests the modern age of the Internet and instant connection may be partly responsible. "The preference for ever spicier and hotter food seems to be related to the people's desire for quick thrills," he says.
by Kim Hoo-ran