Meet the Korean woman who has a PhD in kimchi

Manjo Kim was turned down by 11 American universities when she wanted to do further research on the dish

When Dr Manjo Kim told her chemistry professor that she was keen to pursue research on kimchi, he scoffed.

The then-Korean marine biochemistry undergraduate at Pusan University, and later Seoul University, was interested in her country's national condiment.

Undeterred, she decided to apply for PhD fellowships at 11 American universities to do research on kimchi, but was turned down.

Finally, she was accepted into Leeds University in Britain, where she wrote her doctorate dissertation on the topic in the 1960s.

Her interest in the fermented vegetable was piqued after she put her trousers, which had been stained with kimchi juice, under the microscope.

Dr Kim, who is now 85, says: "The kimchi was alive. There were so many living organisms that I saw under the microscope. I knew then that there was something special about this traditional dish."

The author of six books that include cookbooks and ones about the culture and history of kimchi, was in town recently for a personal visit.

She made time to conduct a two-hour lecture and kimchi-making demonstration at culinary school At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy in Tai Seng Street.

Ask the sprightly Dr Kim, whose smooth and radiant complexion betrays her age, how she manages to keep herself looking young and she says with a laugh: "Maybe it is the microbes in the kimchi."

In Korean, kim means salt, while chi means vegetable.

She tells Life! that kimchi is different each season because it is made with different kinds of seasonal vegetables. These range from napa cabbage to burdock root to mulberry leaves.

But for most Koreans, she says, the most prized kimchi is the one that is made in winter because it is fermented for about six months and as a result, has a more mature and intense flavour. Those made during other seasons are sometimes eaten shortly after preparation.

The process for winter kimchi starts at the end of October or in November, when families in the same village - or in modern times, those living on the same floor in apartment buildings - gather together to make kimchi, brining and washing cabbages, and preparing the seasoning mix. In warmer parts of South Korea, it starts in December.

Traditionally, the seasoned cabbage is placed in large earthernware pots and buried in the soil, which usually has a constant temperature of about minus 5 deg C during the winter months. Air temperature, especially in the northern part of South Korea, usually drops to between minus 14 and minus 18 deg C, she says. The pots are dug out only in May, which is when the winter kimchi is ready to be consumed.

"Kimchi is not just a dish, it is also a way of life, a tradition. The care at each stage comes from the heart and our entire physical being," she says.

Dr Kim, who has been studying the science and art behind kimchi for almost 60 years, says she is still learning.

For example, one thing she found is that unlike sauerkraut or breads which use a starter, old kimchi cannot be added to freshly made kimchi to intensify its taste because it will spoil and contaminate the fresh batch.

In 1996, Dr Kim, who had, at that time, been living in various American cities and Seoul because of her research, moved to Surabaya in Indonesia with her husband, a retired doctor, also 85. She took on a job as an adviser to a company that dealt with microbes in food and is still based there.

Eight years ago, she founded a cooking school there, called The Sages Institute International, which offers courses in culinary arts, baking and pastry, and hospitality management. She saw a gap in the market and decided to fill it.

Mrs Kim, who has five children in their 50s and nine grandchildren, says the art of kimchi is a tradition that will remain for years to come.

She says: "It is a legacy that we will proudly maintain and continue to showcase to the rest of the world."

rltan@sph.com.sg

Follow Rebecca Lynne Tan on Twitter @STrebeccatan