The moment I landed in Dongducheon, Korea just north of Seoul back in 1981, I knew I was in for an epic adventure of sights, sounds, and tastes. Stepping off the plane the strange smells of the country assaulted my nose. I had landed at what is lovingly known as “the turtle farm” which smelled like a combination of feces, earth, and dead fish. Even though this was not the tour of duty I planned on (I wanted Germany), I was going to make the most of it, but I soon discovered that the “Army’s best kept secret” was the birthplace of my now most craved delicacy!
Even before I had left my beloved San Antonio where I was learning about becoming a lab technician, my friends had taught me some of the language so I would more easily get around once safely ensconced at Camp Red Cloud. Of course the words they taught me were all the wrong ones. They did get one right though, and that was how to order a Coke. Once I learned those words I could substitute almost anything else to get started ordering food in the “ville.” (village off base)
Now, the loose translation for “Can I have a Coke please?” is “kolla jusayo butakamnida,” and “Hello” is “yeoboseyo.” It took me months to stop answering the phone that way when I came home! I’m sure I am remembering the slang I used to get around, so nobody quote me on the literal translations please.
I remember the first time I was introduced to kimchi, my Army buddies and I had been drinking at a bar close to the base and one of the cute little waitresses (also named Kim) offered me a bite after I asked her what she was eating. The second the pungent, tangy, spicy, cabbage touched my tongue I was in love! I wanted more and further, I wanted to understand how to make it. That’s when she told me it was fermented in the ground! I had never heard of such a thing and the very next day, I went to museum in Pusan to see how it was done. (I was stationed in Uijongbu)
After they showed me the earthen pots they would put the cabbage mixture in once it was ready to lower into the ground, they then explained the process of “pickling” the cabbage. They explained how the cabbage was soaked, salted, and made ready for the “pooridge” that was later spread on each leaf. A combination of red pepper flakes, garlic, fish sauce, salted shrimp, ginger, and glutinous rice paste mixed with water was basically made into a paste and spread on each leaf before covering in the pot. Then it was buried in the cold ground for five weeks and a shelter was built around it to prevent drastic temperature changes. These days it is ripened in the refrigerator, which is all the better for me!
The smell of kimchi can be off-putting for some, yet it doesn’t bother me and I crave the peppery, sour treat. Some people compare it to sauerkraut, but kimchi is saltier where sauerkraut is tart. Plus, the red pepper flakes make it hot enough to get your sweat glands activated! Thinking back on it now makes me long for the time I spent eating, drinking, and hanging out with the special people of South Korea as well as my military friends, in a country where shared food is the very best kind.