Broken and transformed: Embracing the lesson of the bowl of kimchee
“Euw!” “Yuck!” These were my first reactions to kimchee. I had tried a tiny bit of it a long time ago and did not like it. Stayed away from the stuff.
And yet last month I ate at five Korean restaurants at the Harmon Industrial Park and had kimchee in four of them. I wanted to try something I thought was distasteful. I wanted to give it another chance. Maybe I was looking at it all wrong. Maybe my taste buds had changed, or developed.
I used to think of Harmon Industrial Park as the wild west of Guam. It is actually more developed now and, to my surprise, home to several hidden culinary gems.
On Oct. 19, I went to Bu Ga. It was an excellent introduction to Korean food. For $10.99 I had a huge bibimbap with egg and meat (possibly bulgogi), seven plates of various appetizers called banchan. Banchan usually has three kinds of kimchee – cabbage, eggplant or cucumber, plus sweetened potatoes, bean sprouts and, my favorite, fish cakes.
Bibimbap is a collection of different vegetables served in a deep bowl and topped with a spicy sauce. “Mix it, mix it,” the server said. I did not mix it; I knew the sauce was hot and spicy. I was on my guard, yet ready to face my fate. I picked up some banchan. Must. Be. Brave. I took another bite. Embrace the experience, I told myself. Dive in, you fool. Stop dipping your toes in the water. I dove in. My mouth was burning. I gulped some barley tea. More, you idiot. That’s what you came here for. Don’t be wishy washy.
It’s good, right? the server asked. Uh huh. But my mouth was on fire. More! Eat more!
I kept on eating. I did not enjoy the hot spiciness but was starting to enjoy the rest of the flavors which, individually, were common or plain, but when mixed together packed a flavorful crunchy punch.
Two weeks later I was next door at Myung Ga with my family. My family truly enjoyed the spicy beef soup and bulgogi. I had bibimbap again (Myung Ga’s had no meat) and an interesting drink called corn silk tea, which tasted a lot like barley tea from Bu Ga next door. I like bibimbap better with meat. This time I was less offended by the hot spiciness of the kimchee. And I was really starting to enjoy the whole ensemble.
On Nov. 10 I was at San Jung. I ordered Grilled Yellow Corvina and Leeks Pancake. The pancake mixture was creamy sweet and savory at the same time. This I would like to learn to make at home. San Jung offers self-serve ice cream which is a refreshing end to your meal. The most interesting experience at San Jung was the friendly elderly Korean cashier.
Next day, on Nov. 11 I was at Onul’s. It is probably the newest place to open at Harmon Industrial Park. I ordered Hangover Soup because I wanted to try a hearty Korean soup. So far this was the only place with fish fry banchan. Of all the kimchees I tried, I liked theirs best because it had the strongest fermented flavor. That sourness refreshed the palate from the rich goodness of the oxtail based soup and set off the sweetness of the vegetables. I also liked the presentation of the black rice in a wood encased rice cooker.
On Nov. 16, I was at Charming Corner, my last stop. They did not have the usual fermented Korean fare there – no kimchee, no bibimbap, no banchan. But I truly enjoyed their Noodles with Black Bean sauce, a regional specialty. I overloaded on carbohydrates because I kept trying to run after that black bean sauce taste.
Koreans have been making kimchee for 4,000 years. Women make them together in November and December and bury them in traditional brown ceramic pots called onggi. Fermentation develops lactic acid bacteria. Which is beneficial for our health.
Kimchee is still not my favorite food. But I am beginning to enjoy it when mixed with other flavors. For days after my Harmon Industrial Park Korean food adventure, I looked in stores for kimchee that was not hot and spicy. There is no such thing. The part of kimchee I disliked so much, the red peppers, inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria in kimchee.
There was another motive behind this culinary adventure. I am usually a joyful person with deep faith in Jesus Christ. But there is a small, important part of my life that I find distasteful and run from. Should I embrace it instead of run from it? Should I embrace it the same way I embraced this Korean adventure?
Frederick Beuchner in “A Crazy Holy Grace: The Healing Power of Pain” wrote: “But I think that the price that one pays by dealing with your pain by forgetting it, by stuffing it aside, by not looking at it, is that some part of you doesn’t grow… the things that might have opened…”
Could it be that this very thing that I run from in distaste is something God, in His grace and mercy, allowed to happen for a purpose? For my growth?
It is a hard truth to swallow. I wrestle continually with God over it, much like Jacob wrestled overnight with an angel, refusing to stop his struggle until the angel blessed him. In the morning Jacob came out limping, but he received the blessing he sought.
Therein lay my epiphany. I need to surrender to a good, gracious and loving God who cares about every detail in my life – the sweet and savory, the sour and the bitter. Author Cynthia Tobias said, “there is no transformation without brokenness.” I need to stop running away from what breaks my heart. I must embrace it. And let it transform me.
In facing the distaste head-on I am hopeful that someday I will learn the lesson of the bowl of kimchee.
Jeni Ann Flores is an educator, blogger and freelance writer. You may read more of her writing in http://teacherseditionflores.blogspot.com/