Whenever I meet Nigerian friends, colleagues, or business partners, I often hear them ask, “When will we get a Korean restaurant in Abuja?” “Where can I go to taste Korean food?”
My answer is always the same. “I don’t know when, but I hope we get a Korean restaurant soon.” “The Embassy of the Republic of Korea is the only place where I can taste Korean food, and if I have the opportunity, I will invite you.”
After giving the same answer, as always, a lingering wistfulness remains. I attribute this to the disappointment I feel because even though there is a restaurant where you can taste Korean food in most places you go in the world, there is no such place in Abuja. There is also a sense of responsibility that leads me to ask myself whether I should be doing something about this as the director promoting Korean culture.
It has already been more than two years since I came to Abuja to serve as the Director of the Korean Cultural Centre in Nigeria, living apart from my family in Seoul. Every time I tried to relieve my loneliness due to homesickness and longing for my family, it was Korean food that gave me great comfort and healing.
When discussing Korean food, kimchi cannot be left out. When I face a difficult situation or when I am exhausted, the craving for kimchi becomes stronger. When I put a piece of kimchi in my mouth, all my worries and concerns seem to melt away, like snow. Kimchi is something I have been eating all my life. It is something all Koreans love.
I feel that kimchi is more than food, it is something special.
After being certified as an international standard food by the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) in July, 2001, kimchi has been enjoyed by many people as it steadily became better known around the world. In addition to the spicy flavor, it has also become popular as an excellent healthy food since the discovery of its effectiveness in preventing SARS, bird flu and Atopic Dermatitis.
Actually, kimchi was selected as one of the top five healthy foods of the world in 2006 by Health, a renowned health magazine in the United States. In December, 2013, “Kimjang Culture” was registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
How could kimchi become the representative food of Korea loved by so many people?
First of all, kimchi, which has become a food enjoyed by people all over the world and not just Koreans, can be explained as “a food that is fermented after mixing salted cabbage or radish with seasonings consisting of red pepper powder, green onions, and garlic.” “There are many varieties depending on the ingredients and the preparation method.”
The History of Kimchi
Kimchi, which can be traced back to the Three Kingdoms Period(57 BCE – 668 CE), took on the appearance of kimchi we have today from the Joseon Dynasty(1392-1897) after passing through the developing period of the Goryeo Dynasty(918-1392). Like this, kimchi can be regarded as the essence of the food culture of the Korean people which has continuously progressed throughout the history of Korean people. Therefore, kimchi is more than just a food. It is the culture and history of Korea.
The Three Kingdoms Period should be regarded as the origin of kimchi. Since the cultural environment in which full scale farming settlements were developed existed during the Three Kingdoms Period, early kimchi was born through salt pickling that was necessitated by the climate of the Korean Peninsula.
Even in China and Japan, there were also many types of vegetables pickled with salt, soy paste or soy sauce and a relatively light vegetable pickle in the early stages of lactic acid fermentation. However, Korean kimchi is the only fermented vegetable food that has a unique flavor due to the protein from salted seafood and fragrance of fermentation, in addition to the basic taste.
The Nutrients of Kimchi
Because napa cabbage, radish, red pepper, green onion, and garlic, the main ingredients of kimchi, contain a sizable amount of different vitamins, the kimchi that we eat is rich in various vitamins. Kimchi is also an alkaline food that contains plenty of calcium and minerals in contrast to the low content of high calorie nutrients like sugar, protein and fat.
Calcium or phosphorus deficiency seen in western diets is not a problem for Koreans owing to kimchi. In addition, Koreans who eat copious amount of kimchi can ingest lactic acid via kimchi even if they do not drink lactic-acid fermented milk.
Kimjang – preparing and sharing of kimchi, used to be one of the most important annual events for Koreans. The person in charge of kimjang was the housewife, who ran the household. One of her most important responsibilities was amassing knowledge on kimchi preparation and teaching how to make kimchi.
Kimjang skill was passed on from mother to daughter and from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law. Unique tasting kimchi from each region and family has been handed down through the act of making kimchi itself, not learning from records.
Kimjang is not just women’s work. To make a year’s supply of kimchi, a huge amount of ingredients were needed and the kimchi containers had to be buried in the ground to keep the temperature just right during the changing seasons, in the past, before refrigerators became available. In other words, male members of the family naturally participated in making kimchi as men took charge of such hard labor.
In addition, after ‘Kimjang Culture: Making and Sharing Kimchi in the Republic of Korea’ was confirmed for inclusion in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Register in 2013, ‘Kimjang Culture’ which is the representative food culture of our people has been credited with making a contribution towards enhancing the image of Korea as a prestigious “cultural nation.”
Learning more about kimchi, which was usually consumed without much thought, can lead to some surprising discoveries.
Kimchi is the favorite food of Koreans, and it is the food that represents Korean cuisine.
Food is not just for eating and drinking. There is a saying that food is the product of culture. Korean food reflects the senses and ideas of Koreans. In particular, kimchi, which has been with Koreans for more than a thousand years, contains the long history, technology, and philosophy of the Korean people. In addition, the lives of Koreans living in the present, beyond the past, are contained in it.
Even when taking pictures, while foreigners say “cheese,” Koreans shout “kimchi.”
This is due to the fact that when the word kimchi is pronounced, the corners of the mouth rises slightly, forming a natural smile. Kimchi has long been a part of everyday life for Koreans.
I am eager to introduce this delicious and highly nutritious kimchi of Korea to Nigeria, as soon as possible. Especially, Korean kimchi would be perfect for the Nigerian people who enjoy spicy food.
Recently, the Korean Cultural Centre Nigeria has been actively promoting kimchi to promote it to the citizens of Nigeria.
We have appointed a cultural centre employee as a kimchi messenger, to study the data and latest trends related to kimchi and to spread them to the Nigerian people. We have also been distributing a series of card news by dividing kimchi related information and interesting stories into various topics and continuously uploading them to our social media.
Unlike other days, I examine the streets of Abuja more closely today, on my way home from work.
Where would be a good spot for a Korean restaurant? When will I be able to eat kimchi at a Korean restaurant together with our Cultural Centre staff and citizens?
Today is a special day. So I will bite into a piece of kimchi that I have brought from Korea, as soon as I get home.
Lee Jin Su is the Director of the Korean Cultural Centre Nigeria/ Counselor of the Embassy of the Republic of Korea