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Kimchi & blue cheese sandwiches, East meets West

Before you get turned off, please allow me to introduce this recipe and explain the reasoning behind its creation. I did a review a few weeks ago about Pierre Gagnaire’s masterpiece palate cleanser, a sorbet which combines the flavors of kimchi juice, blue cheese, and chicory cream, topped with turnip-curacao. I questioned his judgment when I first heard about this strange combination of flavors, but once I actually tried it, I was astounded at how delicious it was. I wish I could ask Pierre what inspired this most unlikely flavor mash-up. I decided that if combining kimchi and blue cheese -- two of my favorite foods -- could work in a sorbet, it must be worth experimenting with in other dishes. Sure enough, making a sandwich with these ingredients is worth considering, even if you do not like kimchi or blue cheese.

I introduced the idea of combining kimchi with gorgonzola (a famous Italian blue cheese) to some Italian friends. As expected, they balked at this suggestion. One of them scoffed, “The last thing the strong flavor of blue cheese needs is the even stronger flavor of kimchi! This is culinary blasphemy!” Undaunted, I invited them to taste-test my recipe. I instructed them to bring a bottle of robust Italian red wine to match the strong flavors, and I would provide the gorgonzola and kimchi sandwiches. In the end, the naysayers were amazed. They discovered that, instead of clashing terribly as they’d expected, the blue cheese actually offset the strong kimchi flavor and added lots of tang. The one who’d accused me of “culinary blasphemy” graciously retracted that comment, saying, “It’s most unusual, but this is surprisingly tasty.”

We all know that kimchi is the national dish of Korea, and there are many varieties to complement the different seasons. Winter kimchi is the most widely available and boasts the most varieties. With summer approaching, we’re now seeing summer radish and cucumber kimchi. In this column’s recipe, I used prepackaged Napa cabbage (a.k.a. Chinese cabbage) kimchi, but you can use any kind you’d like.

Kimchi has been around for a long time, and was being made as early as 2600 years ago. Sikyeong, an ancient Chinese book of poetry, mentions kimchi as ji, meaning vegetables soaked in a solution. Kimchi was referred to as dimchae or timchae during the reign of the Baekje and Shilla dynasties. To date, 187 varieties of kimchi have been documented. The infusion of other ingredients from other cuisines, as I have done in this column’s recipe, is giving kimchi a place in the international arena, but in Korea, this fermented vegetable dish has always been a star, both as a side dish and a main ingredient. Kimchi is so ubiquitous in Korea that the first Korean astronaut even took some into space.

As the years passed, kimchi-making also changed, with the addition of spices to produce different flavors, from sweet to sour. The Western world brought chili peppers to East Asia, which first found their way into the kimchi pots around the 17th century, but didn’t become popular until the 19th century.

Regional differences also exist in the making of kimchi. In the northeastern region of Korea, oysters and fresh fish are used to flavor the kimchi thanks to the proximity of the sea. Conversely, they use less salt and red chili pepper in this region. The southern region is warmer than the north and uses more salt, brined anchovies, shrimp, and chili peppers. The mid-eastern region is moderate in the making of kimchi, while the southwestern region uses salted butter fish to season the kimchi.

Kimchi is touted by many as one of the world’s healthiest foods, and rightly so. The nutritional value of cabbage is outstanding and cannot be overemphasized, as is the case with all of the other vegetables with which kimchi is made. (In fact, eating cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables may reduce one’s chance of developing colon and rectal cancer.) Kimchi is an inexpensive food which packs an invaluable nutritional punch. It’s rich in vitamin A, and it’s a good source of potassium. It’s high in dietary fiber and low in calories. One serving of kimchi provides more than half of the daily requirement for vitamin C and carotene, and it’s an excellent source of folic acid. It’s also rich in thiamine (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), calcium, and iron.

And if all that isn’t enough, kimchi also contains lactic acid bacteria, including lactobacillus. Lactobacillus is found in animal feed, milk, and milk products. Certain lactobacilli are used to produce cheeses, sour milk, and yogurt, and they’re important in the production of kimchi. Lactobacilli are also important in the production of beer, wine, sourdough breads, and pickles. According to MayoClinic.com, lactobacillus bacteria live in the small intestine in humans. Lactobacillus acidophilus is accepted as beneficial because it produces lactase, vitamin K, and anti-microbial substances. Medicinal foods and products that contain lactobacillus are called probiotics, and they are hugely popular in today’s world of indigestion caused by too much junky food.

A short note on blue cheese is appropriate here. First of all, the cheese is called blue because the milk, be it cow, sheep or goat milk, has a penicillium culture added so that the final product is veined with a blue-green mold throughout. There are many famous blue cheeses, including Gorgonzola, Stilton, and Roquefort. These are famous cheeses made in specific regions of Italy, Great Britain, and France.

In this unusual recipe, the cheese completes the sandwich by adding a delightful tang and providing protein.



Kimchi & blue cheese sandwiches

2 pieces pita bread, or any kind of bread for sandwiches

100 grams kimchi

100 grams blue cheese (I used gorgonzola)

Toast bread and stuff with kimchi and blue cheese. (You can also use crackers; simply top crackers with blue cheese and kimchi.) Makes 2 servings. Serve with a robust red wine.

By Samia Mounts     (Samiamounts@yahoo.com)

Samia Mounts is a long-time nutritionist and gourmet aficionado. She is the Assistant Principal at Seoul American Elementary School.
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