Hera Hwang is a cook based in Berlin who prepares Seoul Kimchi (available at selected stores throughout Berlin). Last November, she helped organise the Kimchi Festival, which sought to introduce to Berlin some of the variety of Korean cooking. The festival will continue this year too. We caught up to discuss everything kimchi.
You studied traditional Kimchi preparation in Seoul. What brought you to Berlin?
In the beginning I wanted to publish a book introducing kimchi in German. I knew that kimchi was already well-known in Berlin, but it was difficult to find properly-made fermented kimchi. So I started making kimchi in a traditional and original way. I wanted to show how real kimchi tastes.
What makes Kimchi so special?
Korean food has a long history, and a lot of it is based on fermentation and storage, but kimchi has become Korea’s ‘soulfood’. It is at the heart of Korean cooking and you won’t find a Korean table without it for long.
Kimchi is unique because of the variety of nutrients and lactobacillus formed in the fermentation process. It has a scientifically proven antibacterial effect and has a positive impact on the human body. Kimchi boosts your immune system. We held the Kimchi-Festival in Berlin in November of last year to show the range of kimchi’s, it’s healthy properties, as well as its deliciousness.
At the Kimchi Festival, the participants all made Kimchi together. Is this usual?
It’s called ‘Kimjang’ in Korean. It means making a large amount of kimchi all together in winter. Kimjang is a community culture to make and share kimchi together. During the Kimjang season in Korea, people take Kimjang-vacations, get a Kimjang-bonus and there are Kimjang season-forecasts. So the Kimchi-Festival was not only about food, but also about bringing Korean culture to Berlin.
At the kimchi festival, it was clear there were many different regional types of Kimchi, some very different from the kimchi we know in the west. Which is your favourite?
Cabbage kimchi is the most well-known type of kimchi, but kimchi can be made with hundreds of different vegetables: cucumber, radish, leaf mustard, cauliflower even with fruits we can easily find in supermarkets. My favourite is cauliflower-kimchi that I developed here in Berlin. It has higher nutritional value and is crunchy even after fermentation.
How do you recognise good kimchi?
Some places use kimchi powder mixed with vegetables, or put paprika powder on cabbage, but that’s isn’t the authentic way. The colour may be good, but it does not ferment properly. I choose to use natural ingredients and no chemical ingredients. It is difficult to distinguish by looking at the colour or shape, but you’ll know by the taste.
Do you plan to introduce any different varieties of Kimchi to Berlin?
Yes, of course I want to. At the moment, unfortunately we don’t have enough time and energy to make Kimchi in large amounts. So we would like to introduce other types of kimchi first through our seminars, workshops or events like the Kimchi-Festival in Berlin.
People say there are as many types of kimchi recipes as there are housewives in Korea…Would you agree? Is it also true you need a separate fridge to keep it?
It is no exaggeration to say that most Korean mothers are master chefs of kimchi. It is important to maintain a constant temperature when storing kimchi in large quantities. In the past, we buried pots of kimchi in the ground to preserve and store it. Now we live in the city, it’s hard to preserve kimchi in the ground like that. Kimchi-refrigerators have a system that maintains a temperature regularly, and many Korean households have kimchi refrigerators. And it works, really.
Kimchi pancakes are popular too – what other ways of using kimchi?
There are as many dishes using kimchi as different types of kimchi. You can taste kimchi fried rice, kimchi dumplings, and kimchi stew at Korean restaurants in Berlin. At home, just try to stir-fry kimchi and then eat it with Rice, Tofu or grilled Pork. It goes well together.
After the movie Parasite, lots of people started eating the exact mixture of instant noodles shown in the film. What other Korean foods are we missing out on?
Instant food is generally low nutritional value, but children like it because of its strong ‘yummy’ taste. But you know what? Koreans eat ramen and Kimchi together. When I eat instant ramen, I think of kimchi, and when I see kimchi, I want to eat instant ramen. Some people are surprised that we eat spicy ramen with spicy Kimchi together, but actually the protein, vitamins and lactobacillus contained in kimchi can supplement the insufficient nutrients of instant food.
Other than that, Korea has lots of specific foods that are eaten on a particular day. On the new year, Koreans eat rice cake soup (떡국, Tteokguk). The white rice cakes and clear soup help us forget about the previous year and start anew. We also eat (Kimchi) Pancakes on rainy days, Jajangmyeon (Korean Black Bean Sauce Noodles) on moving days, and miyeok guk (seaweed soup) on birthdays.