Today is the birthday (1537) – O.S. January 7 – of Yi I (Hangul: 이이; Hanja: 李珥) one of the two most prominent Korean Confucian scholars of the Joseon Dynasty, the other being his older contemporary, Yi Hwang (Toegye). Yi I is often referred to by his pen name Yulgok (“Chestnut valley”). He is not only known as a scholar but also as a revered politician and reformer.
Yi I was born in Gangneung, Gangwon Province in 1537. His father was a Fourth State Councillor (jwachanseong 좌찬성) and his mother, Shin Saimdang, was an accomplished artist and calligraphist. He was the grand nephew of Yi Gi, prime minister from 1549 to 1551. In his early years he was the student of Baik In-geol, successor to the master Jo Gwang-jo. It is reputed that by the age of 7 he had finished his lessons in the Confucian classics, and passed the Civil Service literary examination at the age of 13. Yi I secluded himself in Kumgang-san following his mother’s death when he was 16 and stayed for 3 years, studying Buddhism. He left the mountains at 20 and devoted himself to the study of Confucianism.
He married at 22 and in the same year passed special exams with top honors with a winning thesis titled Cheondochaek (hangul:천도책, hanja: 天道策, “Book on the Way of Heaven”), which was widely regarded as a literary masterpiece, displaying his knowledge of history and the Confucian philosophy of politics, and also reflecting his profound knowledge of Taoism. He continuously received top honors in civil exams 9 times in a row. His father died when he was 26. He served in various positions in government from the age of 29, and visited the Ming Dynasty as seojanggwan (hangul: 서장관, hanja: 書狀官, document officer) in 1568. He also participated in the writing of the Myeongjong Annals and at 34, wrote Dongho Mundap, an eleven-article political memorial devoted to clarifying his conviction that a righteous government could be achieved.
Due to his vast experience in different offices over the years, Yi I was able to establish a wide vision of politics and with the deep trust of the king, became one of the central figures of politics by the time he was 40. His many documents and theses were presented to the royal court but when political conflicts escalated in 1576, his efforts proved fruitless and he returned home. Following his return, he devoted his time to studies and education of his students and wrote several books.
He returned to office at 45 and while holding various ministerial positions, wrote a great deal to record crucial political events and show his efforts to ease the political conflicts that were rampant at that time. However, King Seonjo was noncommittal in his attitude and it became difficult for Yi I to remain in a neutral position in the conflicts. He left office in 1583 and died the following year.
According to legend, he had a pavilion built near the ford of the Imjin River in his lifetime and instructed his heirs to set it ablaze when the king had to flee northward from Seoul, to provide a guiding beacon. This took place during Hideyoshi’s invasions of Korea at the Imjin war.
Yi I was not only known as a philosopher but also as a social reformer. He did not completely agree with the dualistic Neo-Confucianism teachings followed by Yi Hwang. His school of Neo-Confucianism placed emphasis on the more concrete, material elements; rather than inner spiritual perception, this practical and pragmatic approach valued external experience and learning. Unlike Yi Hwang, who suffered through tumultuous times and did not enjoy being in politics, Yi I was an active official who thought it important to implement Confucian values and principles to government administration. He emphasized learning and self-cultivation as the base of proper administration. Yi I is also well known for his foresight about national security. He proposed to draft and reinforce the army against a possible Japanese attack. His proposal was rejected by the central government but his concerns proved to be well-founded soon after his death, during the Imjin war.
To celebrate Yi I I am going to wax lyrical about kimchi for a spell. Kimchi ( 김치), also spelled kimchee or gimchi, is, for me, the quintessential Korean side dish made of vegetables with a variety of seasonings, and I like to keep some on hand at all times although in some places where I have lived in recent years it is not always easy to get hold of. Commercially available varieties work well enough, but they do not reflect the huge variety and complexity of products available in Korea. In traditional preparations, kimchi was stored underground in jars to keep cool and unfrozen during the winter months. There are hundreds of varieties of kimchi made from napa cabbage, radish, scallion, garlic, ginger or cucumber as the main ingredients.
The term ji was used until the pre-modern terms chimchae, dimchae, and timchae were adopted in the period of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. The word then was modified into jimchi, and is currently kimchi. Red chili pepper flakes (gochugaru) are now used as the main ingredient for the flavor and heat for many varieties of kimchi. In the 12th century, other spices, creating flavors such as sweet and sour, and colors, such as white and orange, were added.
Kimchi is, hands down Korea’s ultimate national dish. During South Korea’s involvement in the Vietnam War its government requested U.S. help to ensure that South Korean troops could obtain it in the field. South Korean president Park Chung-hee told U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson that kimchi was “vitally important to the morale of Korean troops.” It was also sent to space on board Soyuz TMA-12 with Yi So-yeon after a multimillion-dollar research effort to kill the bacteria and lessen the odor without affecting taste.
Kimchi varieties are determined by the main vegetable ingredients and the mix of seasoning used to flavor the kimchi. The Kimchi Field Museum in Seoul has documented 187 historic and current varieties of kimchi. Ingredients can be replaced or added depending on the type of kimchi being made. The most common seasonings include brine, scallions, spices, ginger, chopped radish, garlic, saeujeot (새우젓, shrimp sauce), eoriguljeot (어리굴젓, oyster sauce), and aekjeot (액젓, fish sauce).
Kimchi can be categorized by main ingredients, regions or seasons. Currently there are over 180 varieties of kimchi. The most common variations are baechukimchi (배추김치, napa cabbage kimchi), baechugeotjeori (배추겉절이, unfermented napa cabbage kimchi), bossam kimchi (보쌈김치), baekkimchi (백김치, white kimchi), dongchimi (동치미, water-based kimchi), chonggakkimchi (총각김치, chonggak radish kimchi), kkakdugi (깍두기, radish kimchi), oisobagi (오이소박이, cucumber kimchi), and pakimchi (파김치, green onion kimchi).
Kimchi from the northern parts of Korea tends to have less salt and red chili and usually does not include brined seafood for seasoning. Northern kimchi often has a watery consistency. Kimchi made in the southern parts of Korea, such as Jeolla-do and Gyeongsang-do, uses salt, chili peppers and myeolchijeot (멸치젓, brined anchovy allowed to ferment) or saeujeot (새우젓, brined shrimp allowed to ferment), myeolchiaekjeot (멸치액젓), kkanariaekjeot (까나리액젓), liquid anchovy jeot, similar to fish sauce used in Southeast Asia, but thicker.
Saeujeot (새우젓) or myeolchijeot is not added to the kimchi spice-seasoning mixture, but is simmered first to reduce odors, eliminate tannic flavor and fats, and then is mixed with a thickener made of rice or wheat starch (풀). This technique has been falling into disuse for the past 40 years.
White kimchi (baek kimchi) is baechu (napa cabbage) seasoned without chili pepper and is neither red in color nor spicy. White radish kimchi (dongchimi) is another example of a kimchi that is not spicy. The watery white kimchi varieties are sometimes used as an ingredient in a number of dishes such as cold noodles in dongchimi brine (dongchimi guksu).
Different types of kimchi were traditionally made at different times of the year, based on when various vegetables were in season and also to take advantage of hot and cold seasons before the era of refrigeration. Although the advent of modern refrigeration — including kimchi refrigerators specifically designed with precise controls to keep different varieties of kimchi at optimal temperatures at various stages of fermentation — has made this seasonality unnecessary, Koreans continue to consume kimchi according to traditional seasonal preferences.
Traditionally, the greatest varieties of kimchi were available during the winter. In preparation for the long winter months, many types of kimjang kimchi (김장 김치) were prepared in early winter and stored in the ground in large kimchi pots. Today, many city residents use modern kimchi refrigerators offering precise temperature controls to store kimjang kimchi. November and December are traditionally when people begin to make kimchi. Women often gather together in each other’s homes to help with winter kimchi preparations. “Baechu kimchi” is made with salted baechu filled with thin strips of radish, parsley, pine nuts, pears, chestnuts, shredded red pepper, manna lichen (석이 버섯), garlic, and ginger.
After that little discourse you are on your own. Find whatever you can. My common habit is to eat kimchi with rice, or make it into a soup or stew (kimchi-guk or kimchi jjigae). It’s your choice whether to make it with or without pork. I usually don’t but it makes a hearty meal with it. Without the pork I just heat all the ingredients in water for a few minutes and garnish with green onions.
2 cups chopped kimchi
½ lb pork shoulder (or pork belly), cut into bite sized pieces
2 tbsp hot pepper paste
1 tsp sugar (optional)
2 green onions, chopped
14 oz tofu, cut into bite sized cubes
Place all the ingredients except the tofu and green onions in a heavy stock pot and cover with cold water. Simmer until the pork is tender (40 minutes to 1 hour).
Add the tofu and continue simmering until it is warmed through (10 minutes or less).
Serve in deep bowls garnished with green onions and accompanied with rice.