Sunday, 23 January 2011

What's the point of kimchi? What's the point of ignorance?

So I just caught wind, through Mike, from TBS radio's twitter account @mikeontbs, of an article in the Guardian by a lady named Rachel Cooke, titled "What's the point of Kimchi"

Go read it.

Now, I'm not a huge fan of the boosterism thing, and I don't necessarily think that kimchi should be the main focus of attempts to promote Korean food abroad, because it isn't the most accessible of Korean foods (bulgogi is, and bibimbap's up there, as is chapchae, and those awesome fish-bread things you can buy on the street in the winter).  I don't believe Kimchi cures cancer, H1N1, bird flu, prolongs erections,  makes children learn to read faster, heightens spatial reasoning, improves TOEIC scores, increases resistance to the HIV virus, or does any of the other things Tom Waits claims it does in Step Right Up.

On the other hand, I'd also prefer if people writing about Kimchi around the world at least knew a damn thing about it.  Rachel Cooke tried Korean food a few times, didn't like kimchi the first time she tried it, because it reminded her of foul sauerkraut she once had, visited the Kimchi Field Museum in COEX's website, and wrote her article.  (I've been to the museum itself: it's no great shakes, frankly, but at least I've actually been there, eaten a whack of varieties of kimchi, and know enough about Kimchi to know a good kimchi from a bad one, and I didn't just find the Kimchi Museum's website through its wikipedia page after googling "Kimchi Information" and looking all the way to the second result.)

Now, if somebody walked into a newsroom, and said "Hey!  We need an article on Italian food!" and I was a member of that newsroom, I'd say "Gee. I have allergies to cheese and cream, and the strongest memory I have of Italian food is the smell of the burnt spaghetti sauce that got left on the stove while we were calling the ambulance after my father had that heart attack.  Since then I've avoided Italian food, so I'm not the best guy to write about it.  Find someone who actually knows about Italian."

I wouldn't have said "Hey!  I'll use those six hundred words to shit on Italian food without really knowing anything about it, and make my ignorance and avoidance of it a point of pride!"

Which is pretty much what Ms. Cooke did here.

I don't think netizens should publish her address on the internet and encourage Korean-English citizens who live near her to leave flaming bags of poop on her doorstep, I don't think VANK should engineer a DDOS attack on The Guardian's website, and I have no idea if Ms. Cooke is normally a very fair, well-informed and even-handed writer in the rest of her articles... but she sure ain't in this one.  And if she can dismiss the entirety of kimchi because of her few experiences with it, maybe I'll turn that same ignorance on her, and dismiss her entirety upon a tiny, ill-informed slice of information, and encourage her to piss up a rope.

Ms. Cooke: if you don't know anything about something, rather than flaunting your ignorance of it, next time I recommend you pass on the opportunity to make yourself look like an ignoramus, and let somebody else do the piece on Kimchi.

If the article is a troll to prompt "outrage hits" for The Guardian's website, shame on you and your editor for being so trashy.  If it isn't, shame on you and your editor for not seeing a problem with being so willfully ignorant of a national cuisine's signature dish.

And to The Guardian: if you want an article about Kimchi, I'll write one for you, or I'll recommend some people to you who actually know about Kimchi, and have strong opinions on it that are born of knowledge and fondness for Korean cuisine, instead of ignorance.

(by the way: the Urban Dictionary page for Kimchi is pretty funny, just because it's so easy to pick out which definitions were submitted by expats, and which were submitted by Koreans.)

Rant over.


Anonymous said...

"If the article is a troll to prompt 'outrage hits' for The Guardian's website"

This is pretty much the raison d'etre of The Guardian.

Or to put it another way, What's the point of vapid British curmudgeons?

Although I do find it amusing that an English person would lecture the rest of the world about food.

Roboseyo said...

"Although I do find it amusing that an English person would lecture the rest of the world about food."

bwahaha! maybe she would have done better with something as bland as nurungji tang.

In that vein, as "the pot calling the kettle black" goes, I always found it ironic when Koreans, from the country that invented cheonggukjang, dwenjang and kimchi, declare that they don't like Vietnamese pho soup, "because it smells bad"

Gisela Verdin said...

I don't know "what's the point of Kimchi" buuuuuuuut... I do like it, I've had it here in Mexico, in Seoul and I've dared to made it from scratch.. and I liked it (all of them)... I actually blogged about it, but I don't think I ould lecture someone about it ince I'm no expert.. :S

Anonymous said...

The comparison to sauerkraut at the end says everything we need to know about this writer. Although it's sort of a funny story.

The only good news is that Ms Cooke was completely honest and upfront about what she doesn't know and why. It's "an awfully long way away."

She read a book about North Korea, and instead of telling us much about the book, she calls up a friend with a Korean wife to ask about Korean food. Yeah, that's just how I'd write about a book detailing "the lives of real people in famine-stricken North Korea."

By the way, the joke about the English is that "They had to build an empire just to get a good meal." (Most of my Brit friends laugh at that one, and say it sounds about right.)

Tamar1973 said...

Bobster, many of us have ancestors from the British Isles who fled to the New World for same reason. ;)

Anonymous said...

The video you embedded appears to have a naked woman on it. I do not appreciate this as I am at work. I will not be looking at your website in the future (at work) for this reason. Please consider this when you post links and embed videos.

Thank you.

Roboseyo said...

Anon: most of the videos I post here are for "soundtrack" puposes; you are encouraged to hit play, scroll past them, and read the post.

The picture is an album cover; it doesn't change. You don't need to watch the video.

3gyupsal said...

I think that the Ms. Cooke is just in the first phases of Kimchi. If you live in England, you don't really have to eat it, whereas in in Korea, the abundance of it makes it a bit more difficult to avoid.

I think that Kimchi has a few phases somewhat like the five phases of grief.

Kimchi Phase 1: Repulse - This is the initial smell of Kimchi. You might taste it and decide not to eat more during that meal.

Kimchi phase 2: Denial - Denial happens after your second or third week of living in Korea and you think that the next meal can't possibly have kimchi with it...but wait it does, and you feel dissapointed.

Kimchi phase 3: eh it tastes pretty good with pork.

Kimchi phase 4: You start to notice differences in kimchi. You notice that old Kimchi is tart new kimchi doesn't taste that good, and you might discriminate against going to a restaurant because their kimchi isn't good.

Kimchi phase 5: Full on acceptance - This is where you go to a different country and think it is strange that the meal doesn't have kimchi.

So what struck me when I read the article is that Ms. Cooke simply hasn't had enough time to develop the taste for kimchi. She needs to work on it a bit more. "What's the Point of Kimchi," shouldn't be just one article, it should be like a ten part series.

Roboseyo said...

3gyup: bang on.

It's like the stages of culture shock.

I'm now in the final stage of kimchi acceptance: demand. I won't go back to a restaurant that has crappy kimchi, and if I go three days without kimchi, I crave it like a wino.

Lunalil said...

It seems that she didn't go to the Kimchi museum, just the website.


Roboseyo said...

that's correct, Lunalil. The article makes it pretty clear she's never been to Korea, but London's Koreatown was, in her opinion, a good enough substitute to pass final judgement on Kimchi.

Anonymous said...

@3gyupsal I was like phase 5 the first time i went to Japan after my first year in South Korea. Some places had their version of kimchibut it felt weird not eating it with every meal as I had done in the school cafeteria.

As for the hot food trend for 2011, I don't think kimchi will really take off like the 'Korean tacos'. It's all about the locals adapting food to their own taste. Eg, original jajangmyeon is nothing like the Korean version. Yet as a student in Beijing I could buy the Korean version because the (mostly Korean) students there liked it better and it is different enough from the original to have its own market in China anyway.

So while there are many different varieties of kimchi (I prefer the ones not soaked in brine; cripsier and less salty but with a little prawn thrown in for the taste), the one people outside Korea are likely to be aware of will be the one the restaurant can get for the lowest price, and as you know, you get what you pay for.
Now, a Korean restaurant that makes authentic kimchi (both contemporary and pre-Imjin War varieties) could be on to something. But in the end, it's just a sidedish and doesn't have the emotional attachment or historical significance for anyone but Koreans.

Now, pajeon and ddok galbi....

Hanna said...

"The large print giveth, the small print taketh away..." (I love that line in the song... you might also like for your next Halloween gathering).

As far as kimchi goes, I think that the author does nothing more than succeed in embarrassing herself due to her obvious (and admitted) lack of awareness.

3gyupsal, you got it right, but you missed step 6. When you reach step 5, but then repatriate to a place with no kimchi (or bad kimchi), it plunges you into a sense of irreversible reverse culture shock.

Kimchi will change you forever!