Best I can tell, the former South Korean minister of food, agriculture, forestry and fisheries is trying to convince me that fermented cabbage could be sold at Sephora as a regenerative skin-care product.
“I’m 73 years old,” says Sung-Hoon Kim, standing under the Gwangju World Kimchi Culture Festival tent recently in Centreville, Va. “Do you see any wrinkles on me?”
As I inspect his round, friendly, bespectacled face, I have to admit that I don’t.
Well into his eighth decade, Kim has no crow’s feet around his eyes and no apparent worry lines across his forehead — although his brow is semi-concealed by a ball cap, so the jury’s still out there. Kim comes right out and calls kimchi an “anti-aging” food, then points to three nearby women in colorful hanbok dresses. He says they’re all kimchi masters. Their skin is flawlessly smooth.
“Don’t ask their ages,” Kim warns me.
Kim’s skin-care pitch is part of his mission in Virginia. He’s the chairman of the 19th annual Gwangju World Kimchi Culture Festival, which made its first-ever foray outside of South Korea earlier this month to promote the country’s national dish of spicy fermented vegetables (there are hundreds of varieties) as part of the larger, 10th annual Korus Festival, organized by the Korean American Association of the Metropolitan Washington Area.
No doubt indulging America’s nearly neurotic desire to outrun death — and look good while doing so — Kim arrived here to sell us on kimchi’s health benefits. Its high-fiber, low-fat properties. Its good bacteria to help with digestion. Its vitamins A, B and C.
Kim might be better off selling Americans on the pure enjoyment of preparing a quick, fresh batch of kimchi. Before the festival opened, organizers had me join the three kimchi masters in donning aprons and plastic gloves and smearing a piquant fermented fish paste all over a head of previously soaked, salted and dried Napa cabbage. I was sandwiched between Ho-Oak Kim on my right and Soon-Ja Kim, president of the Kimchi Association of Korea, on my left. Neither was shy about correcting my faults as a kimchi maker.
The Kims introduced me to the social engagement of kimchi preparation. After you thoroughly coat each leaf with the fire-brick-red paste — but before you wrap the cabbage in its outer leaf to secure the condiment in place — you can pluck a small pale-yellow blade, roll it up and place the cool-and-fiery bite into a neighbor’s mouth. Soon-Ja and Ho-Oak repeatedly fed me as if I were a hound begging at the table.
The best gift, though, was that festival organizers let me take my two neatly folded heads of kimchi home, where I debated whether to let them ferment at room temperature for another day or just put them straight into the refrigerator for slower ripening. (I opted for the latter, out of respect for my wife, who ranks the aroma of spicy fermented fish somewhere below the U.S. Congress.)
For the past several days, I have been nibbling on the raw kimchi (it’s my new favorite football-watching snack) and using it to make Joe Yonan’s Grilled Kimcheese sandwiches, with an added slice of late-season tomato for an extra blast of umami.
I’ve also been wondering whether my skin looks any tighter.