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a kimchi story
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I am a bit of a random cook. One reason i don't think i'd cut it as a professional chef despite it being pretty much the only other job i ever entertained is because i don't follow recipes. I don't write 'em down. I don't measure anything. I like to cook for me, and my tastes are pretty simple. I am spicy, salty, sour, bitter, sweet - in that order.

There is a Chinese joke that relies on the fact that the word 辣 (là) rhymes with 怕 (pà). It goes something like this: a Sichuanese, a Hunanese and guy from Guizhou walk into a bar. They order wings and the bartender warns they're pretty spicy. The Sichuanese says "i'm from Sichuan,辣不怕" [if it's spicy, i'm not afraid]. Then the Hunanese says, "well i'm from Hunan, 不怕辣" [i'm not afraid of spicy]. The Guizhou guy looks up from his phone and just says "怕不辣" [i'm afraid of not spicy].

I'm 怕不辣.

So it should not come as a surprise that i think kimchi is delicious. It's spicy and salty and a bit crispy and sweet but mostly spicy. The other day miyabi_kkg mentioned eating "army stew", which after a bit of web searching i found is the English name for the Korean fusion dish called budae jjigae. That's a big old steaming pot of chili and kimchi plus whatever junk the Americans shipped over to their army bases - SPAM, baked beans, instant ramen, government cheese and so on. I mean, it sounds like an awesome trashy eat straight off the bat, but i also recall eating it at a restaurant in Berlin and even gussied up for the hipster crowd it's delicious.

I decided to buy some kimchi and try make something similar at home. First step was buying the kimchi.

There's a story here. Chinese Walmart. Or pretty much any Chinese grocery store. There are whole aisles of food that is very difficult to find overseas. Tons of different soy sauces, vinegars, oils, cooking wines... Dried fungi, dried fruit, dried bits of random offal, mystery herbs for making teas and tinctures and God knows what else. Fortunately i didn't have a big problem getting my kitchen started since my staple flavor enhancers are all staples in the Chinese kitchen too: soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, chilis, garlic, ginger etc. And basic staples like fruit, veg, beans and grains are pretty similar everywhere in the world. But if you want to buy prepared food, that's when you really notice the differences.

For example, something that immediately struck me when i moved to Germany was the amount of pickle. Germans have a whole fucking aisle of pickled shit that i cannot ever imagine tasting good. They also have like 17 fucking aisles of flop Italian red sauces and whatnot. Also only one flavor of potato chips, and that flavor is paprika. Grocery shopping in Germany was fucking depressing.

Here in China they have 17 aisles of fucking milk powders for infants. I can't even at how much of the stores here are dedicated to baby formula. Like. Use the boob, Luke! But aside from that, most of the snacks and prepared sauces are straight-up Chinese. Puffed grain stick. Rice cracker. Jelly cup in every imaginable flavor. Kawaii candy. "Just add water" hotpot mix. Instant noodle out the wazoo. Then tucked away in different corners they have the import foods. Lots of dried fruit from Thailand and Vietnam. From Philippines comes some more kawaii snacks. From Japan even more. Especially Pocky. So many goddamn Pocky. Peanut butter from America. Pasta sauce from Italy. Wine from France. Baked beans from Malaysia. Indo Mie from Indonesia. And from Korea? Something that looks exactly like marmalade but according to the packaging it is tea. (I have not been game to try that yet.) It took me some hunting, since Chinese grocery store also have an aisle of pickle - mostly bamboo shoots and chicken feet - but eventually i found it: kimchi! After hunting through the whole store, it turned out to be in exactly the same fridge where i pick up my tofu.

I never bought kimchi in a store before. It's only ever been restaurant food for me. For some reason i thought it would come in a big earthenware pot for you to bury out in your back yard. Or at least a glass jar like every other pickle. But it comes refrigerated, in a bag. I left it in my fridge for a week because i figured the older the better. When i took it out, the bag had swollen up like a balloon. I think if i had left it in there any longer it would have exploded and funked up my fridge for reals. Popping it open it definitely funked my whole kitchen. Lord almighty, kimchi is explosive.

Not gonna lie, i knew it was going to rock ass from the moment i cracked the seal and got the first whiff.

I figured i would try do my army stew on Saturday morning when i had time. I know the Korean version needs gochugang, which is a special chili paste that i could not find in my local grocery store. But i also know gochugang is just chilis and salt and fermented beans, which is almost the same ingredients as doubanjiang, a Chinese chili paste that - yeah - there's a whole aisle of. Doubanjiang has become one of my key ingredients since i moved here and i cannot imagine ever cooking without it again. Anywho, i read on wiki that gochugang is a bit sweeter, so i figured i would try to fake gochugang by mixing doubanjiang with a sweetener.

Now, let's jump back a little because i actually did a trial run earlier in the week. I don't have any sugar or pretty much any sweet things in my house aside from fruit and ice tea. In the past i just used to buy lumps of palm sugar and leave them in the back of the cupboard for the days i wanted to cook something a bit sweet. This time i decided to kill two birds with one stone and buy a local snack to use as my sweetener. The snack is called 山楂条 (shān zhā tiáo) and it is made of some kind of mountain fruit that wiki calls hawthorn. You wouldn't know it's a fruit because it's just boiled down and compressed into jelly batonnets. Just looking at the bag i knew it would be hella sweet, so i never bought it before. I figured i'd never finish the bag. I was right. They are too sweet for me to snack on, though a little sour too. But using them for cooking is perfect.

I was cooking one of my daily tofu fries with the cumin, doubanjiang and red cooking wine combo that a few months ago i discovered makes food taste oddly meaty and European. But i also added some fennel and diced 山楂条 too. Then i figured i needed to balance the sweet with sour so i splashed in some vinegar (there's a particular style i use called old Shaanxi - it's the deepest, brownest vinegar in China, similar to balsamic). Imagine my surprise when i basically ended up with BBQ sauce. Like, not even gonna lie. It was fucking delicious, but it didn't taste Korean at all. Or Chinese. It tasted American as apple pie. Or, well, BBQ.

So, awesome experiment, but i realized that was not the secret to recreating gochugang. When i tried again for my army stew, i decided to leave out the vinegar and cumin and fennel, and focus in on the doubanjiang and 山楂条. Unf. Fuck yeah. Add diced soft tofu. Add kimchi. Add a can of baked beans. Toss in some okra. Crispy fried peanuts, ginger, garlic, chili. Woah mama. Serve in two dishes because you made too much. Scoop it up with rice crackers because my coffee pot was being used for brewing coffee instead of cooking noodles. Yum. It's perhaps not "authentic", but given the dish is fusion to start with, who cares? So good.

That was last weekend. Since then i've been getting more creative with my kimchi-as-a-condiment. It makes everything taste awesome. Even just a little bit tossed into a different veg or tofu mix adds so much depth. This morning i made a regular napa cabbage dish, and still added a little kimchi to the tofu dish because you can never have too much cabbage.

This is the point i should probably mention i know kimchi isn't vegan, or even vegetarian. I am pretty sure the starter culture for the fermentation is dead fish. But, eh. This has been an experiment. Now i know i like it as an ingredient, i will see if there is a veg-friendly brand or a way of making it myself.

So, food discoveries of the last two weeks? 山楂条 and kimchi. Also i guess fennel. I bought it on a whim a few weeks ago and started tossing it into dishes here and there to see what worked. I realized pretty quickly that it makes stuff taste Taiwanese to me. On the odd occasion in Taiwan that you are not breathing in motorcycle fumes, you will probably be smelling five spice as some roadside restaurant stews up a pungent broth for beef noodle soup or something. I miss that smell. Cook with fennel, get the Taiwan smell. Fennel, 山楂条 and kimchi. Oh, and i started buying carrots again too. Works well in that army stew or other big pot dishes to add sweetness. Carrots, fennel, 山楂条 and kimchi. It's been a good few weeks for cooking.

Who would have thought, i've progressed past that phase where i was doing restaurant style "small dish" cooking back to the barbarian/peasant style big pot. Just more tools in my tool belt. I love messing around in the kitchen!
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Wow, you’re giving me grocery store envy. I did not get a chance to do my traditional mad-panic run through the Chinese grocery before we left DC, and so I have no idea what I am going to do for fish sauce and soy and shaoxing wine for the next three years.

On the other hand, I am eating the most delicious hummus I’ve ever had while sitting on my couch watching Nailed It on Netflix, so my life isn’t all bad.

(I do have a veggie kimchi recipe somewhere, from my mom, but I doubt it’s authentic enough for you since I think it’s from the moosewood.)

I never tried using cooking wine before, even though I know it's considered fundamental in a lot of Chinese dishes. I picked it up a couple months ago on a whim and it's definitely pretty handy! Although, to be honest, I am not sure it would be as useful if you don't have a wok and a very hot flame. Pretty much any liquid I pour into that wok just evaporates in no seconds flat, leaving only delicious flavors behind.

I envy your hummus!! There was an Israeli crew on the festival circuit in Germany who made the best fresh hummus plates. It's so refreshing and delicious. Awesome summer food, and nothing you buy in plastic container at the grocery store comes close.

Also, man oh man, the Moosewood - haven't heard that name in 30-odd years! Blast from the past.

ROFL! I'm loving your whole experience on the exploding kimchi and the attempt to make the gochugang. Is it difficult to find a Korean store over there? But yep, who cares as long as it tastes good!

I think you should be able to find 酸豆角 around where you found the kimchi.

I guess there must be some Korean stores over here, but I have no idea where to start looking. I don't think we have any Koreatowns like Beijing or Shanghai.

I still had no luck finding 酸豆角, but I discovered some other pickles that have been making me happy. I don't know if it's a brand name or if it's the type of pickle but 学生海带 and 学生萝卜干 are pretty great.

Kimchi is the one thing I will cheat on my veganism for. I have found jarred kimchi in Sweden without fish sauce, but most often I get it from a restaurant and simply don't ask. My ex tried to make it fresh, but it went moldy :/

I did some searching around the web last week for recipes and seems like it's not too hard to make, number of ingredients wise. But it does seem like you need to invest a bit of time, more than I would like to. Maybe a project for the future...

The Korean marmalade that's actually tea is pretty good. I drank a lot when i had a stinking cold. Of course I am stuffed full of all sorts of kimchi here. And BBQ is a very Korean thing, though not using american style sauce! It's meat fried on a hot plate in the center of the table, then wrapped in leaves alongside pickles, garlic and onion. I'd like to try a tofu version one day.

Well done on managing to stay mostly vegan in China. I was veggie for fourteen years before starting my travels and just finding it too difficult in east Asia and selling out. When eating out here food tends to be shared and often there really is no veggie option at all. But i stay veggie when cooking for myself, and hope to return to it.

When were you in Taiwan? I was there a couple of years ago, though i'm struggling now to remember much about the food. Four weeks were spent at a workaway for a yoga retreat with a small farm attached The food was all vegan and delicious, though hardly traditional Taiwanese. Two weeks were spent on a pineapple farm where after working in the fields first thing in the morning we'd be taken to a local cheap restaurant for breakfast.

The Korean marmalade that's actually tea - can you also eat it like marmalade? That's been the main thing stopping me from buying it. I imagine the tea is good when I'm in a tea mood, but that's not often. Having a pot of marmalade around that occasionally doubles as tea would be pretty handy, though.

I have found it's pretty easy to stay theoretically vegan in China as long as you always eat alone. You just go to the diviest restaurant around and pick the cheapest thing on the menu - that's usually just rice or noodles with some greens. Worst case it's got an egg scrambled in or a scoop of ground pork, but that's barely worth worrying about. Steamed buns and other pastries are also pretty good if you are able to ask what's inside. I found the safest option if you are very fussy is the self-serve BBQ and noodle joints where you can just pick sticks of mushrooms, tofu, eggplant etc.

But the moment you step into a restaurant which is aimed at feeding families and groups, then you are screwed. Even if you order vege dishes at those restaurants, they are drowning in fish or meat broth. It's sort of the opposite of the problem we have in the west - here the bigger the restaurant the less likely they will have even a true vege option. I feel like it's a cultural problem tied to the celebration of abundance - if you're eating at a big restaurant, you want them to serve lots of meat, otherwise how are you going to show off your wealth?

Peasant food ftw, to be honest.

I spent about a month in Taiwan before coming to mainland last year. They have a pretty strong Buddhist food scene over there. The thing that annoyed me about a lot of those joints was the no garlic, no cilantro thing. But it's still nice to be able to tear into everything without worrying about what it is. Here on the mainland there are far less of those sorts of restaurants because people are much less religious... but it's definitely doable if you want to. I imagine Korea is a bit more tricky with all the seafood, but i've heard they also have religious vegetarianism like Taiwan, so i guess you could pop into those restaurants from time to time?

I can't fault anyone for not sticking to their guns over here if they go out a lot with family and friends, though. At the end of the day you still gotta do what makes you happy, otherwise you might as well just become a monk.

It looks like it could work as marmalade, though i never tried that and i've since drank the whole jar. If you do buy some and experiment let me know the results!

Yeah Korea, and Busan especially, is very heavy on sea food. Lots of restaurants have fish tanks outside full of fish, crabs, octopus and spoon worms waiting to be slaughtered and served (spoon worms are more commonly known as sea penis, if you see one you'll understand why, they're really freaky). Some streets are like the worlds saddest aquarium.

I found a few veggie restaurants in Beijing, often next door to Buddhist temples. There are veggie restaurants in Busan and i do mean to try one some time. There's a vegan one near Jemma's place, but she doesn't want to visit as it's owned by people from her old won Buddhism group. She was a Buddhist nun for nearly all her adult life until a fall out triggered by her former group using her artwork without crediting her for it.

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