Since resettling in the U.S., I've had plenty of opportunity to pine after fragments of the cultures I've left behind. I regularly yearn for things Korean, having made my home in Seoul for a solid 20 months. Just flipping through the Lonely Planet guidebook today while doing some research for an upcoming article brought it all back--the scents of fish and fermentation permeating the tight alleys, the crush of bodies and designer clothes in Gangnam, the neural connections firing in my brain as I struggle to interpret Hangeul.
And now the experience of living in a foreign and wonderful country has ended, impossible to recreate. Instead, I find myself condensing that tapestry of emotions into a handful of tangible items. There's the faded subway map tacked to my bedroom wall, the ceramic figurine I bought at the gift shop of the Buddhist temple. And there's the kimch'i jjigae.
The first point of Korean cuisine anyone learns is kimch'i, that peculiar, pungent concoction of pickled cabbage and hot pepper paste. Of all the dishes I've eaten in my life, kimch'i stands alone, unique, comparable to nothing else. Perhaps that's why, no matter how much aversion you experience on first sampling the cold, soggy, fiery vegetable medley, addiction inevitably sets in.
Served with every meal, kimch'i in many senses is the dominant flavor of Korean cooking. Case in point, kimch'i jjigae--"kimch'i stew." When made well, this dish is an explosion of sweet, spicy tang that will leave you with burnt lips and a runny nose.
I've come across many styles, but the foundation for all is, of course, kimch'i. The older and more fermented the better, as it will have a stronger taste and make the broth more flavorful. Green onion, yellow onion, zuccini, peppers, garlic, and ginger are also staples. Most contain slices of fatty pork as wells as chunks of soft tofu, while some variations substitute shellfish for the pork. The jjigae is served, still boiling, in a hot stone pot, accompanied by a small bowl of white rice. Really, there's nothing finer.
Oddly enough, one of the best kimch'i jjigaes I've tasted was found at the Four Seasons restaurant in Ithaca, NY. Chance encounters such as this are now my only links back to my savory, unforgettable life in Korea. I'm constantly on the lookout.
**photos by Aya Padron**