Story by Dave Choo
I’m a fourth-generation Korean American—which means I’m not much of a Korean at all. Outside of being able to read a menu at a Korean barbecue restaurant, I know embarrassingly little about my culture, and for many years my sole connection to my heritage came from spicy, fermented vegetables: kim chee. As a baby in my highchair, I would eat small handfuls of the stuff, grinning the whole time. As a toddler I dosed my saimin with a heavy garnish of cucumber kim chee and a splash of “juice,” pepper-filled orange pickling liquid. In grade school I learned to make a kim chee sandwich: two slices of white bread, a dab of mayo and a single layer of won bok kim chee. By middle school I was eating kim chee right out of the jar, popping pieces of cucumber and daikon in my mouth as if they were Doritos.
For years I reasoned that all of this kim chee consumption must be contributing to making me authentically Korean— but finally I faced the indisputable fact that drinking Guinness does not make a man Irish, nor does eating pasta make him Italian. And now I’ve discovered that even the kim chee I’ve been eating in Hawai‘i is as far removed from its homeland as I am.
The kim chee that I grew up with has far less firepower than its Korean cousin. Instead of a pasty spice rub, most local-style kim chees get their heat from a peppery, briny liquid, and because Islanders prefer their kim chee fresh and crispy, it’s usually eaten well before any serious fermentation takes place. As a consequence, flavors tend to be mild and simple, heat manageable. “Real” Korean kim chee … well, that’s another animal altogether.