Korean Culture
and Kimchi as Metaphor

It was the best of foods, it was the worst of foods, and in Korean culture we can only be talking about pickled, fermented vegetables known as kimchi, or kimchee, depending on how you want to spell it in the western world.

Korean Culture Begins With Kimchi

What makes kimchee the best of foods? It's salty, sweet, sour, spicy characteristics leave no palate with a ho-hum aftertaste.

What makes kimchee the worst representative? It's salty, sweet, sour, spicy characteristics leave some palates feeling distinctly violated. Usually, that's a western reaction, though not ALL westerners hate kimchee. That would be a silly statement to make.

Whether you love it or hate it, if you ever visit Korea, you had better get used to the taste and smell. It's a side dish served at every meal, and even in bars with a glass of beer. Kimchee is so important to the Korean culture that the government had to temporarily do away with import taxes on Chinese cabbage one year when bad weather hurt the Korean crop. Just read NPR's Kimchi Crisis Leaves South Koreans in a Pickle for more information. You'll see that a kimchee crisis is way more serious than any piddly Thanksgiving pumpkin shortage in America.

Now. . .cabbage is not the only vegetable needed for making kimchee, but it is the primary one. Korean cooks also make kimchee in a variety of other styles: radish, cucumber, zucchini, turnip and other roots, gourds and vegetables. Historians believe that kimchee is the Korean equivalent of Chinese pickled vegetables, which crossed national boundaries centuries ago.

It wasn't until after the 16th century when westerners brought chili pepper to Korea, that Korean people added a little fire to the fermentation.

And if you REALLY want an illustration of how important kimchee is to the Korean culture, consider this: Traditionally, the worth of a Korean wife was determined by the varieties of kimchee she could make. A decent wife could make at least 12, according to the New York Food Museum.

Korean History — Fomented in China and Flowing to Japan

Korean Culture Begins in China

There's evidence of people inhabiting the Korean peninsula from over 700,000 years ago, and archaeologists have found pottery from 8,000 BCE. Historians believe rice came to Korea around 2700 BCE from China. This (and pickled vegetables) barely mark the beginning of all things fomented, fermented, borrowed and traded with China.

Around 400 BCE the Korean peoples began sailing the Yellow Sea or Sea of Japan to the land of the Rising Sun, where many settled and stayed.

The Koreans were initially shamanistic in their religion, and Shamanism still survives. But the culture is also Buddhist and Confucian, both carryovers from neighboring China — respect for elders in society is a very Confucian characteristic of many Asian cultures. You will also find a strong sense of atheism (particularly in North Korea) and many Christians (particularly in southernmost Korea).

Historically speaking, Korean culture was filled with religious festival, some of them very lavishly celebrated. Some of those holidays are still important:

Traditional Korean Dress

» Seollal is the first day of the lunar new year, and family holiday in which members make a deep bow called Sebae to their elders.

» Chuseok is the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, in which families conduct Seongmyo, or conduct visits to ancestral grave sites. This is a three day holiday.

» Siokga Tansini, or Buddha's Birthday, is celebrated on the eighth day of the fourth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, which falls on April 28th in 2012. You'll find lotus lanterns decorating the temples and some of the streets. Many temples will serve free tea and food to the visitors, which of course, will include kimchee.

So who's ready for some kimchee, in it's many, fermented forms? You can probably try many varieties at Korean BBQ restaurants scattered throughout the U.S., attempt to Make Your Own, or chase down the Contribute to the Whirled! | Global Calendar of Festivals and Events. Share your experiences of Korea or other festive events with fellow Whirled Travelers, have your friends comment on your post, and if your information is good, we'll add it to our spreadsheet.

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