Regional forms of the national dish

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Regional forms of the national dish

Like the long, slow speech of the Chungcheong provinces or the fast, high-pitched intonations of the Gyeongsang provinces, kimchi tastes different from region to region. Sliced radish kimchi in Seoul is known for its light, pleasant aftertaste, while thick blends of brined fish seasonings are notable in the mustard leaf kimchi produced in South Jeolla province.
As the kimchi-preparing season nearly draws to a close, the JoongAng Ilbo’s weekend section team traveled around the country and met kimchi masters. Their rich stories are as varied as the types of kimchi they produce.


‘Distinctive and refreshing’

Jeolla provinces: Dolsan mustard leaf kimchi
A half-hour drive from Yeosu, South Jeolla province, leads to the view of a mountain peak on Dolsan Island, so named because of its sudden appearance.
The remote island recently has become famous because of the mustard leaf kimchi produced there. This type of kimchi is known to lower cholesterol levels, but it also has a distinctive taste.
“I can't tell the difference since I grew up here, but people from other areas say it tastes less pungent,” said Jeong Yun-ja, 52, who lives on the island. Ms. Jeong grows her own mustard leaves, and is considered the best kimchi maker on the island of 500 households.
“There is no special technique,” Ms. Jeong said. “Everyone here makes kimchi the same way I do.”
Mustard leaf kimchi is often very spicy, but that produced on Dolsan Island is less so.
“Perhaps it is because of the weather. There is almost no snow,” Ms. Jeong said. “With a warm oceanic climate and alkaline sandy soil, mustard leaves grown here are softer.”
The seasoning is also different. Anchovies are stored in a large container of brine for one year before use. Normally, dried red pepper powder is used for seasoning, but Ms. Jeong uses ground pepper soaked in water. She also adds ground shrimp for a more refreshing taste.
“I was the eighth of nine brothers and sisters. When I was young, all of our family members prepared kimchi,” she said. “My father always said my kimchi tasted the best.”


The secret lies in seasoning

Gyeongsang provinces: Leaf by leaf with care ― Hamyang sesame leaf kimchi
Married to the eldest son in a family of 12 children, Hong Sun-myeong as a 19-year-old woman never felt easy under the watchful eyes of her mother-in-law. She prepared food with great care, but her mother-in-law often criticized her. When she was scolded, she would climb a hill and cry, although she now feels it was for her own good.
Ms. Hong, 64, well known for making sesame leaf kimchi in Hamyang, South Gyeongsang province, is now a chief executive officer. Twenty-five years ago, she began selling kimchi under the name of Sansu Food, and now employs 15 people.
She began her business by selling fried sesame leaves, and one day took two boxes to department stores in Seoul. “Store officials seemed amazed at the audacity of a rural housewife,” Ms. Hong said. “I didn't intend to make money and had nothing to lose.”
A week later, several retailers called to request more fried sesame leaves. Five years later, she began selling sesame leaf kimchi.
The secret of the fine taste of her kimchi lies in the salted anchovy seasoning. Anchovies from Samcheonpo and Tongyoung are boiled in a large saucepan, and ground red pepper, perilla seeds and garlic are added. Recently, she started adding sliced chestnuts for better nutrition.
“Instead of immersing sesame leaves in seasoning, I apply seasoning to the leaves one at a time,” she said. “In that way, the seasoning permeates the leaves evenly. Patience is what makes good food and I learned that from my mother-in-law.”


A food fit for royalty

Seoul: Tiny shrimp bask under the eyes of the king ― Gamdongjeot radish kimchi
A kimchi made of cubed radish or cabbage seasoned with salted baby shrimp has a noble name.
Not many people have heard of this kimchi seasoned with Gamdongjeot (gamdong means impressive and jeot means salted fish). In fact, no such thing as Gamdongjeot exists. The story behind why sliced radish kimchi seasoned with salted baby shrimp came to have such a gracious name starts with a king.
During the Joseon Dynasty, a king tried the kimchi and was impressed with its taste, and ordered his subjects to call it “Gamdongjeot radish kimchi.” The kimchi was served to royalty, and sometimes had abalone and octopus, which were hard to obtain, added to it.
Kim Suk-nyeon, 70, whose ancestors have lived in Seoul for almost 30 generations, is recreating the original taste. Ms. Kim is a descendant of Kim Sang-heon, who was a high-ranking official during the reign of the 16th king of the Joseon Dynasty, and Princess Bokon, the daughter of the 23rd king.
Kimchi made with salted shrimp becomes relatively dark in color, and since the kimchi is fermented for one month and generally consumed in January, it is better to use harder radish than soft cabbage.
The tiny shrimp are so fine that they are mixed without chopping. “It has a light, pleasant aftertaste with a unique scent and an earthy feel suitable for Seoul residents,” Ms. Kim said. The Korean food that goes best with the kimchi is tteokguk, or rice cake soup.


Carbonated spring water makes the difference

Chungcheong provinces: Dongchimi
Jang Jang-won, 41, is the owner of Sunfre Kimchiland, a kimchi manufacturer in Cheongju, North Chungcheong province. He has been making kimchi for four years and recently created a special kind called Chojeong Yaksu Dongchimi.
Dongchimi is less spicy than the traditional varieties of kimchi. It is served in cold water.
Mr. Jang developed the kimchi for a special reason. “I was born in Cheongju and I have had kimchi my entire life. But I always wished there was a special kind of kimchi that would represent my city,” he said. “I tried to figure out how to develop a kimchi that would have the city’s character.”
Mr. Jang finally found a way. He used Chojeong spring water, a naturally carbonated spring water produced in his city, to make dongchimi. He believes the water used for kimchi is just as important as the seasoning. “Chojeong spring water is the only naturally carbonated water in Korea. It has a lot of minerals and also aids digestion,” he said.
For the kimchi, he uses only organic radish, grown without artificial fertilizer. First, the radish is soaked in salted spring water for 12 hours.
The radish is then removed, washed and served in fresh spring water with peppers, green onions and other vegetables. The taste of the liquid is rather bland compared to other kinds of dongchimi, but the radish tastes cool and appetizing, like a bite of a fresh apple.


Fish broth adds to a ‘quintessential’ kimchi

Gangwon province: Myeongtae kimchi
Many experts say that seafood is indispensable in producing good kimchi.
In the process of making kimchi, shrimp and anchovy sauce, oysters and dried pollock are often mixed with the cabbage, peppers and other vegetables. But not many people use fish broth, as do kimchi makers in Gangwon province. Instead of fish sauce, they boil fresh pollock in salt water for a long time and use the broth to make a type of kimchi called myeongtae (pollock in Korean) kimchi. If fresh raw pollock is added to the kimchi it becomes myeongtae sokbagi.
“Not many people make myeongtae kimchi any more because pollock is too expensive these days,” said Jin Geum-su, 49, a kimchi maker in Yangyang. “But when I was young, every family had myeongtae kimchi.”
Ms. Jin learned to make myeongtae kimchi from her mother, and she is now quite famous in the area. People invite her to make kimchi whenever there is a special event in town.
Last year, when Japanese people from Rokkasho village came to Korea to learn how to make kimchi, Ms. Jin was invited to teach them her technique. The Japanese were fascinated by the taste of her product and described it as “the quintessential kimchi.”
One important element in preparing the kimchi is to use ground onion, ginger, garlic and shrimp sauce in the pollock broth, which makes the taste very rich without giving it a strong, fishy odor.
“Most of all, however, myeongtae kimchi tastes the best because it's made with the quality vegetables we grow here,” said Ms. Jin.

by Kim Pil-kyu, Choi Min-woo
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