According to this Salon article, kimchi is thoroughly mainstream now in America. Driven by big name Korean American chefs like David Chang and Roy Choi, kimchi has become something like arugula: kind of exotic, but only if you're not "with it."
To me, this is all a bit amusing because when I was growing up, kimchi was that pungent staple of Korean cuisine that you were always wary of serving (or having waft through the house) when you had your non-Korean friends over. In high school, I remember some of my friends thinking that kimchi was actually instant bowl noodles. I guess they saw the "kimchi flavored" label on the bowl and got mistaken.
|No, this is not kimchi|
As for myself, I like kimchi but I don't miss it the way I may miss a ton of other basic Korean foods (like jjajangmyun, salted mackerel, doenjang jjigae, etc.).
There are also a lot of kimchi types. The most familiar one is reddish with flat, ridged cabbage pieces. My favourite is called yeolmoo kimchi. It's green, with little cylindrical shoots and ample leaves. I think I like it because (A) it's generally more tart and refreshing than most kimchi types, and (B) I like leafy kimchi.
|Yeolmoo Kimchi: My fave!|
One funny type of kimchi is called cheonggak kimchi, which translates to "bachelor's kimchi." It's made with small, roundish vegetables. I'm not sure why it's called this, and neither do my parents. I did some basic internet research and supposedly, the shape of the radish is similar to that of hairstyles that were worn by Korean bachelors back in the day.
Non-Koreans should know that kimchi is not a meal onto itself. Apparently, some people eat it as they would a salad. I believe that people should eat a food any way they want, but in case anyone wants to eat it the "right" way, kimchi is not a main dish. Nor is it often a primary side dish. Go to any Korean restaurant, and kimchi will be just one of many little dishes, along with soy beans, perilla leaves, potatoes, anchovies, and so forth. Maybe this is what Italians feel when they come to the U.S. and see us eating huge bowls of pasta as a main course.
Best thing about kimchi is that it's very versatile. Whether it's cold or cooked, it tastes great. Here are some common and easy ways to eat it.
1) Kimchi Bokkeum Bap (Fried Rice)
|My own handiwork|
When I'm in Seoul, this is my go-to lunch when I'm at home and don't have any lunch plans. It's super easy to make: just chop up some kimchi and onions, fry'em up, and add some sesame oil. This is a dish that is actually elevated by spam due to its softness and saltiness. You could use ham or beef or other meats, but it's not the same.
2) Grilled Kimchi
Kimchi, like garlic, is a food that tastes wonderfully different when grilled. Gone is the tart spiciness, and replacing it is a kind of rich smokiness. Always grill your kimchi when you're at a Korean BBQ.
3) Kimchi Jeon (Pancakes)
This is a very useful way to use old kimchi that may be a bit too ripe for normal eating. This is good because the batter will dilute the flavour, so you want kimchi that's very strong tasting. Only trick is to get that crispy outer layer that's hard to achieve with typical frypans and stoves. I've tried making this at home, but I can't get that restaurant-style crust.
4) Kimchi Jjigae (Stew)
A very easy dish to make that can turn any boring pile of rice into something mouth-watering. If you're in Seoul, the one at the ubiquitous Saemaeul Shikdang is very well-known. You can pretty much add anything to kimchi jjigae (pork, tofu, tuna, etc.) and it'll taste great.
5) Steamed Kimchi with Pork Belly
Very simple dish. Steamed kimchi and uncured pork belly, with some plain tofu if you want. Sounds boring by themselves, but eat them together, and it's a very satisfying combo.