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  By Michael B. Chung

Kudos to Kimchi: How Kimchi Will Save Koreans in Los Angeles

Kimchee, kimchi, and kimchii. It has over a thousand different recipes, hundreds of variations, and even a couple of different spellings in English. But this food is more than just a mere side dish to be eaten with some white rice -- it is a Korean institution. Kimchi is a strictly Korean phenomenon. It has been referred to as a colorful side dish, a complimentary condiment and even as an interesting main dish. But one thing is certain: it is a Korean culinary phenomenon that is distinctive. Kimchi has been an instrumental part of Korean culture and history. Throughout Korean history, the look, taste, and especially smell of kimchi have come to symbolize the triumphs and trials of this tiny peninsula. And perhaps today in Los Angeles, this vegetable dish can serve as the bridge joining two segmented generations of Koreans in Los Angeles.

Koreans have eaten kimchi with their meals for hundreds of years. The practice of making and eating kimchi began approximately six hundred years ago, with the practice of kimjang. Kimjang -- salting and pickling vegetables and burying them underground to keep them cold -- was necessary due to Korea's climate and location. Korea is surrounded on three sides by water and experiences a variety of extreme weather conditions. Winters routinely last four to five months. Due to the nation's reliance on agriculture, various methods to preserve food during the long winter months were needed. Even today, with the availability of other food products in the more industrialized nation of South Korea, kimchi is still a primary ingredient in meals.

Preparation of kimchi usually involves at least one head of Chinese cabbage or napa, a few cloves of ginger, about three tablespoons of sugar, about three tablespoons of salt, some water, rice flour, chopped green onions, and its most distinctive ingredient, red pepper powder. Some types of kimchi vary in amounts of red pepper added, according to the palates of the consumers, and other ingredients can be thrown in to meet the needs of the individual creator. But the most typical kimchi is emblazoned with the fiery redness that strikes fear in the hearts of many tasters.

The kimchi maker is an artist, much like a chemist adding and subtracting what she wishes. My mother has never and never will use a teaspoon or cup to measure the ingredients. To her, ingredients are measured by how she feels at the time she is making kimchi. A handful here, a pinch here. This lack of preciseness parallels the very nature of Koreans themselves, being rough, yet spicy and offensive.

One of the most interesting aspects of kimchi is its versatility. There is no such thing as kimchi that has gone bad -- the only "bad" kimchi is having an empty jar. Even when kimchi is past its prime in a jar, it can always be used for kimchi stew (kimchi chigae), which is made by cooking it with a little water, a dash of salt, and some pork (or Spam for college students). Kimchi can easily be transformed into virtually any type of meal by mixing it up with other leftovers, which used to be done during the cold winter months in Korea when little food was available. This practice, too, is being adapted by college students during cold finals week.

One enduring characteristic of kimchi is its fragility in transport but its ruggedness in consistency. Kimchi is not a highly exportable item from Korea because of its short shelf life, although there is constant research going on to make it last longer. Of the twenty-two books published in 1995 on the subject of kimchi and its ingredients, over half concentrated on how to make kimchi last longer or how to efficiently produce it for mass consumption.

Kimchi is a very crucial part of Korean culture, as shown by the interest in it by the Korean Food Research Institute. National kimchi research projects in Korea have become popular in recent years. The South Korean government has funded private and public groups that do research on various properties of kimchi. Much of the research done on kimchi relates to extending its short shelf life, promoting the mass production of kimchi, creating new products involving kimchi, and studying its nutritional value.

Several research papers have documented the medicinal values of kimchi. Kimchi contains antioxidants, long deemed as cancer preventing compounds, as well as an vitamin B, carotene and ascorbic acid. It has high contents of dietary fiber, vitamins and very little fat. Especially with the current health craze, more than 45% of research done on kimchi in Korea and America focuses on its dietary effects.

Kimchi holds a special place in the lives of older Koreans because of the supposed miracle of 1936. Many elderly people fondly reminisce about how the emaciated Soon Kee Chung attributed his gold medal winning performance in the 1936 Olympic marathon to the miraculous powers of kimchi. People in Korea were convinced that Chung had received extraordinary strength from the kimchi and rice he consumed while training for the marathon.

Does kimchi still have relevance for Koreans in America today? In a survey reported in the "KoreAm Journal," over 80% of Korean Americans responded positively when asked if kimchi was a major component of evening meals. Yes, kimchi is a popular food for Korean Americans. But kimchi can also play a role in bringing our community together.

Before and after the Los Angeles crisis of 1992, the Korean community was divided. Some felt that language was a unifying point, but it actually accentuated the rift between the first and the second generation. In fact, commonalities between the immigrant generation and U.S.-born generation are becoming harder and harder to find by as young Korean Americans are increasingly assimilated into American society.

That's why it's significant that 80% of Korean Americans eat kimchi and see it as an important part of their culture. Perhaps they can begin to view kimchi as the important bridge between generations. Throughout the history in Korea, many have suggested that kimchi has miraculous healing powers. However, today, dealing with the dichotomy and anguish of the new Korean community in Los Angeles may be kimchi's greatest test ever.

(Michael B. Chung is a senior majoring in History.)