Faux-traditional kimchi dish with a genuine kickFreshly pickled cabbage kimchi may be a common commodity today, but it used to impossible to find in the dead of the winter, especially before special refrigerators designed for kimchi came out less than a decade ago.
In the old days, how a batch of kimchi fermented was entirely up to the weather. At the arrival of spring, the winter kimchi, called gimjang, turned almost brown and rancid. That might sound unappealing, but gimjang is considered a favorite and nutritional food, which is known to be high in protein, minerals and vitamins. It was the culinary duty of mothers to be creative with the recipe, washing it in running water, boiling it in a pot, or stir-frying it with steamed rice.
Kimchijjim sounds as if it could be a very old recipe that might have been mentioned in ancient cookbooks from the Joseon dynasty, when the new imports of Chinese cabbage and red chili peppers permanently changed Korean cuisine. Adding to the illusion of tradition is kimchijjim being served “country-style” at Hanokjip, a 50-year-old tile-roof house-cum-restaurant in an old neighborhood in northern Seoul. The place is made to look nostalgically rundown, as part of the house has been extended under slate-roofed rooms where diners sit down on linoleum floors. On top of that, one serving of kimchijjim, or kimchijjige, the stew version that is the only other dish on Hanokjip’s menu, costs 5,000 won ($4) for lunch or dinner. Meals include rice and side dishes. Matronly women scoot around the restaurant, loud and brash, but they are kind enough to let two people share one order. During busy lunch hours, mouth-smacking fans queue outside for a taste of the original kimchi dishes here. The recent kimchi scandals ― lead in Chinese imports and parasite eggs in domestic versions ― don’t seem to have affected the restaurant, which uses only made-in-Korea kimchi, and the owner has already started a franchise.
Surprisingly, kimchijjim is a recent invention introduced by Hanokjip only three years ago. According to one of the employees, the recipe has been copied all over the country.
Years ago, the mother of Yun Chul, the owner of Hanokjip, braised the aged gimjang kimchi, called mugeunji in Korean, with chunks of pork, similar to the way beef or pollack was simmered for hours. She dubbed the result kimchijjim. Inspired by his mother’s seasonal treat, the owner began to mass-produce kimchi that could be fermented just right anytime of the year, and brought the dish out to the public.
The waitress suggested that we order two kimchijjim and one kimchijjige. A few side dishes ― japchae (stir-fried glass noodles) served cold, roasted seaweed and fresh kimchi ― and rice were brought in instantly, followed by the jjim on a large plastic plate and a battered pot of stew to be cooked on a gas burner mounted on each table. We were told to add instant noodles, free of charge, to the pot. The stew appears to be plain, home-made stuff, made with a couple slices of tofu, spring onion and strips of pork belly. The bright red kimchi and its soup maintained that tangy, sharp zing, characteristic of well-fermented kimchi.
The sight of kimchijjim, uncut kimchi strips and brown lumps of meat was overwhelming ― whether it’s viewed as mouthwatering or gross depending on the diners’ experience with aged kimchi. For those who haven’t acquired a taste for salty and pungent kimchi, the dish can be adventurous, similar to the way roquefort cheese can be for a novice. But, the super-tender pork, devoid of any meat smell, splits like jelly on the lightest touch and is a perfect match for the raw, fibrous strips of kimchi made with an indescribably complex taste. It was well-rounded without any obvious onion, garlic or fish sauce flavor. These steaming hot, reasonably spicy kimchi dishes are served with the perfect neutralizer: plain rice and noodles, a filling combination. It’s a pretty simple dish, but making great kimchi is no simple endeavor. To go with the spicy dinner, we ordered a bottle of semi-sweet rice wine (4,000 won), but we kept forgetting about the wine, immersed as we were in consuming these mysterious kimchi dishes.
English: Not spoken, not on the menu.
Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.
Location: Near Seodaemun Church; Seodaemun station, line no. 5, exit 2. Walk straight toward Doknipmun about 150 meters and turn left at the Seodaemun Church sign.
Parking: Free parking nearby.
by Ines Cho