red carpets of chili peppers

Over a month ago I flew from Munich to Seoul and in less than a week I will take a flight back. My weeks in Korea have been both sweet and spicy. The country has been generous yet also confusing. When on the road, I often found myself not sure which bus to take or stop to get off at, but someone was always watching over me, ready to tap me on the shoulder and point where I should go. 

This also means that quite often I use food as a common language. From sharing prawns and soju with strangers on the street of Busan to being gifted a cucumber by a farmer on an island, Koreans are charitable when it comes to food. And I've said many times before, food is the best method that I know for getting to know a culture and a country.

I know that it is an easy alliteration and a tad cliche, but the topic of food instantly connects Korea with kimchi. Can you talk about one without the other?  There is, of course, much more to Korean cuisine that this spicy fermented cabbage that has just as many fans as it does enemies, but since I fall into the former category I'm happy to use kimchi as my gateway to Korean food.

 One thing that has left a deep impression on me has been the kimchi pots that take up space everywhere from backyards to museum displays, from rooftops to fire-escapes, and from gardens in rural temples to alleyways in Seoul. I've made a habit of photographing of them and these photos map kimchi making activities from the country's densely populated capital to rural, aging islands. Numbers begin to illustrate the firm rule that kimchi has on this cuisine (the average person in Korea eats 40 pounds of it a year!), as do references to cultural habits ("smile for the picture and say kimchi"), but I think that the beautiful ceramic pots, in which cabbage ferments into kimchi, that are placed in prime locations across the country are the most beautiful proof of its culinary reign.

Although you do find white kimchi from time to time, almost always there is not kimchi without chili. This wasn't all the case, but when the Japanese invaded Korea in the 16th century, red chili came with them. In its most basic form, kimchi consists of cabbage fermented in the company of garlic, ginger, chili peppers and brine. The variations number in the hundreds and can include everything from fresh oysters to scallions, carrots to radishes, fish sauce to soy sauce. Gwangju even has a festival devoted to kimchi each fall, but I'll be back in Munich long before it starts. 

Chili peppers define the Korean landscape just as much as the kimchi pots do. For a long time, I found the picture of hot peppers growing to be nothing short of exotic. When I was in Mexico last year, I was visiting a good friend who had moved there. Over beer one day, she asked me if I knew what fresh lime juice did to human skin. "No," I answered. "Well, of course you don't," she said. "Neither did I because we both grew up in Canada." She proceeded to tell me a hilarious and dangerous story of her squeezing lime juice all over her hair, with the juices carelessly running over her body, not knowing that lime juice left stains (and ones in interesting shapes in her case). My growing up certainly did lack an education in both the side-effects of lime juice and the anatomy of chili plants.

Maybe it is because I didn't grow up seeing chili peppers still on the plant that this scene now makes my heart beat. This is something that Korea has certainly delivered. As much as I enjoy the view of rolling green hills and vibrant valleys from the windows of buses and trains, I get most excited seeing fields of red. In cities and beyond, there are piles of spicy peppers laid out to dry in the sun and those red carpets of chili peppers make my heart excited. 

Anonymous –   – (September 3, 2013 at 8:06 AM)  

Beautiful Photos! I love the colors and the feel that you evoke in the photos! Safe travels!

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