Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Summer Food Memories: The Making of Kimchi

I spent most of August dutifully visiting our local Korean market, hoping to see Mike's homemade kimchi in the refrigerated case by the cash register. Cathy, his wife, greets me with a smile; she knows why I'm there. "Good Timing! He's in the back, making kimchi right now. Do you want to see?" I had to pinch myself. First time food experiences have a way of leaving their mark on you, especially those that include a folkloric dish you didn't grow up with.

"You can try the kimchi, but it is ah-fresh and he likes to make it very ah-spicy." Mike's wife has a charming way of attaching the sound of "ah" to words, revealing her Korean accent when she is particularly enthusiastic about something. "I taught him how to make the kimchi and now he makes it better than me. He puts all kinds of things in there and makes it his way, not mine. I don't know what he does, but he makes it delicious!" Cathy throws her hands in the air and shakes her head as she laughs. It reminds me of how my mother teased my father about the mishmash dishes he would make out of leftovers (which were very good and usually surfaced after Thanksgiving or trips to the German butcher in the Bronx where he purchased European deli meats).

Cathy directs me to the food preparation room in the back of the store where Mike is mixing kimchi, his hands protected from the sear of chili by transparent gloves. In front of him is a bowl of rough cut Napa cabbage coated with a fiery red paste flecked with vegetal streaks of green. There are several bowls on the table including sliced daikon radishes, perilla leaves (usually reserved for wrapping finger food in Korean cuisine, but part of Mike's signature kimchi), chopped scallions and bottles of the culinary accoutrements that give kimchi its flavorful punch (fish sauce, hot pepper flakes, etc.). A discarded bag from H-Mart tells me that he doesn't mess around when it comes to ingredients; he goes to the source.

Mike encourages me to taste the different vegetables he uses in his kimchi, each of them coated in a garlicky dressing of his own concoction. Though everything is fiery there is a quality of peppery sweetness that reminds me of poivron rouge, a spice made from ground niora peppers grown in volcanic soil surrounding the Atlas Mountains near Marrakesh. I ask him where that lush pepper taste comes from and he reveals one of his secrets; he grinds fresh red peppers for his kimchi.

Mike has the same quality of enthusiasm for old country foodways that my father had. I repeatedly heard stories about salted cabbage magically transforming into sauerkraut via an alchemical vessel also known as "the wooden barrel," and how sauerkraut kept everyone in the family of five free from sickness during brutal Brzeziny winters in Poland. Like my father, Mike enjoys telling me how healthy his delicious concoction is. When I look at the shape of his hands covered in transparent gloves I see my father's hands, hands that know hard work and never complain, hands that hold the future of children who are too distracted with life to read the story of love and family in the dry lines and taut folds.

I leave the store with the heat of kimchi-to-be in my mouth and a smile that lasts all the way home. My lips tingle and the sensation is akin to being tickled by a thousand little feathers. Knowing this is like having a secret which makes me smile even more. I put the key in the apartment door and realize that thoughts which normally take up residence in my head had taken a much needed vacation, inspiring a state of kimchi Zen.

I return to the market on Wednesday, the day after New York experiences tremors from a 5.8 earthquake. Cathy tells me to wait until Saturday before I eat Mike's homemade kimchi as it will taste better if it has more time to ferment. I am patient for delicious. Three days later, per Cathy's instructions, I taste the kimchi. The howling winds of a downgraded Hurricane Irene go mute as I remember what it was like being in the kitchen when Mike was making kimchi. Its savor and tang inscribes my mouth with a flavorful memory that will never let me forget.

Kimchi is a fermented cabbage dish served alongside savory meals in Korea. There are over 150 different kinds of kimchi made in Korea, which also boasts a Kimchi Museum. It is said that a Korean wife that doesn't know how to make kimchi will have little luck finding a husband.

After getting a copy of my father's papers from Auschwitz I was able to locate the address of the house where he lived in Brzeziny (which was located 20 kilometers east of Łódź, in Poland). Łódź-Park Piłsudskiego-gb-17 is now a park. It has been photographed by MiloTaurus1 on Panoramio. According to my father there was a small barn attached to the property. That is where the sauerkraut barrels were kept.

HMart, a Korean supermarket, is opening in Westchester. It will be located at 371 North Central Avenue in Hartsdale.

Mike and Cathy Jung own Hastings Prime Meats. It is located on 537 Warburton Avenue in Hastings on Hudson, New York. If you're lucky, they're will be some kimchi in the refrigerated food case when you are in the neighborhood.

Photograph of Mike Jung taken by Michelle Krell Kydd. Other photos in this post are licensed via Creative Commons. The picture of a sauerkraut barrel was taken by Aaron Tyo-Dickerson.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Portrait of Congenital Anosmia: The Teenage Years

A person born without a sense of smell has a condition called congenital anosmia. Unlike acquired anosmia, which occurs due to head injury or upper respiratory issues, there are no reference points for smell for the congenital anosmic, no Proustian memories to resurrect. Smell culture is learned by observing others which can be particularly awkward for teenagers who are in a more self-conscious phase of life. 

39-year-old Pauline Lipscomb didn't recognize her congenital anosmia until she was a teenager, "Believe it or not, I didn’t know I couldn’t smell until I was 14 years old. I was dancing with a boy at a school dance who said to me “I used my Mom’s strawberry shampoo. I’m not wearing perfume.” I told him it smelled fine to me, but really, in my head, I was thinking I can’t smell anything; I really can’t smell a thing! I never discussed this with my parents though, I’m not sure why. I was probably afraid they would take me to the doctor... Not having your sense of smell isn’t something you notice for a long time I guess, compared to other senses such as hearing and sight.

26-year-old Marie Sherman is a member of the Congenital Anosmia group on Facebook. On August 10th she shared a poem she discovered while digging through some old high school papers. The poem was part of an English assignment that required the use of "I Am" as the format for expression. The result is precious and insightful as it beautifully illustrates what it is like to be a teenager with congenital anosmia. Ms. Sherman read the poem aloud to her class who were undoubtedly moved by the revelation and ensuing emotional recitation which even Ms. Sherman did not expect.

I Am
By Marie Sherman

I am the quiet one who cannot smell.
I wonder what the world is like, full of smells.
I hear people call me weird when they find out the truth about me.
I see myself sometimes as "that weird girl who cannot smell."
I want to be able to smell everything no matter how disgusting something smells.
I am the quiet one who cannot smell.

I pretend to be able to smell to fit in.
I feel untrue to myself every time I do that.
I touch a nerve in myself because I am not being true to myself.
I worry that when I am on my own my life will be in danger because I can't smell.
I cry because I am not showing everyone the true me.
I am the quiet one who cannot smell.

I understand no one is perfect.
I say that everyone seeks acceptance.
I dream that everyone will be accepted no matter what.
I try to treat people the way I want to be treated.
I hope everyone will feel acceptance.
I am the quiet one who cannot smell.

The unpleasant smells that Ms. Sherman refers to in her poem also include dangerous smells like spoiled food, gas and smoke. Children of congenital anosmics that can smell often serve as the "nose" for that parent.

Scientists think that a mutated gene on Chromosome 18 might be responsible for isolated congenital anosmia. You can read the scientific paper here.

Thanks to Pauline Lipscomb and Marie Sherman for sharing their stories and their photographs (the one of Marie is from her high school years). Additional thanks go out to the Congenital Anosmia group on Facebook for allowing an "olfie" like me to participate as a community member.