What's the first thing that pops into your brain when you think of Korea? Well, before I switched from being a Russian Linguist in the Marines to a Korean Linguist, when someone mentioned Korea, I just imagined the Korean War or Klinger from M.A.S.H.
During a quick introduction to Korea, it's customs and cuisine when I made the switch to Korean Linguist at The Defense Language Institute in Monterrey, California, I was introduced to KIMCHI! Eating kimchi at the time was more of a dare, a "I bet you can't eat two whole bites of kimchi" kind of thing.Over the years, I have grown to love kimchi in all of its different forms. There are hundreds of different kinds of kimchi, using different sauce ingredients as well as different vegetables.
One of my all time favorite kimchi memories is a kimchi eating contest I participated in a Korea Day picnic we had in California. All of the Korean Linguists from the whole base participated in the picnic that day, several hundred of us, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard. I guess the Koreans thought it would be funny to have a kimchi eating contest, so they got volunteers, 4 or so members of each branch of service, lined us all up around a long banquet table out under the trees, gave us each a giant plate of bright red fermented cabbage leaves.
Rules were simple, first to finish their approximately 2 pounds of kimchi (think paper plate with a Close Encounters mashed potatoes size pile of kimchi) was the winner! Well, We munched the crap out of that kimchi, many of us eating it for the first time, or eating more than a chopstick full at once for the first time.
The results, though a little controversial at the time, saw all four Marine participants finish in the top three! Two Marines tied for third, an Army dawg got a solo second place, and two Marines, myself and Jesse Zimbauer, tied for the WIN! The awarding of first place had to wait until the judges went to the instant replay and then to the rule book (haha, not really). Jesse stuffed his chipmunk cheeks with his final bunch of spicy, limp kimchi leaves and stood up to indicate that he was finished, but he hadn't chewed and swallowed yet. I remained seated until the last leaves made the trip down the esophagus, quickly stood up, opened my mouth wide showing that all of the kimchi was eaten. At that exact moment, the already standing Zimmy gulped down his last chunks of kimchi, and we were declared co-champions! Brothers! I have photos somewhere of us and our kimchi sauce faces. Classic.So, part of our tour was actually MAKING kimchi. We were bussed to a little kimchi "factory" and a funny Korean man who spoke just enough Thai to give funny instructions, walked us through an abbreviated lesson on the actual process of massaging the kimchi sauce into the cabbage leaves, and then wrapping it to prepare the kimchi to ferment. We didn't actually mix the ingredients for the sauce, or salt the cabbage, but it was an opportunity for people to see how kimchi is made, as well as a chance for the tour to sell Duty Free kimchi (there were many of these sales pitches after activities).
I'd made kimchi, the full process, two or three times previously. Several times with my Aunt Sharon prior to my mission, and once with some members in Incheon during my mission. Difference, other than ingredients, was that we ate the Utah kimchi would be stored in a giant pickle bottle and eaten the same week it was made. The kimchi I helped make in Korea would be stuck out on the balcony or in the back yard in a clay or ceramic pot (we lovingly call them "kimchi pots") and eaten several months down the line.For me, you can't eat a proper Korean meal without kimchi. Other than being super yummy, it helps to fix any meal! Kinda like Tabasco. Squirt that stuff on bland tuna sandwich or overcooked bowl or mac-n-cheese and it fixes it right up. Kimchi has a similar ability!! There are five bags of kimchi in my freezer...anyone guess what's for dinner tonight!?