Last weekend I attended Northern Virginia’s annual Korean festival. Located in Centreville, VA, the city’s population of approximately 71,000 topped out in last year’s census with a 25% (and growing) Asian demographic, many of whom are Korean. That’s not to mention Fairfax County, where Centreville is located; the Asian population there is nearly 20%.
Though the identity markers on demographic census papers are vague (how do you identify yourself if you were born in Central Asia but have a Russian last name and Russian passport, for example?), the first generation of Northern Virginia Korean-Americans and Korean green card holders self-identify pretty strongly, by maintaining vital connections to the food, language and culture of Korea.
The Korean festival has been going on for 10 years.
It was packed.
If you missed the festival this year, here are three things to put on your Korean to-do list while you wait for next year.
1. Learn to make kimchi.
I first tried kimchi at the prompting of my students; I recently finished teaching an ESL class at a Korean community college in Centreville. “It’s healthy, like yogurt,” my student prompted. The sour and spicy cabbage is indeed fermented in such a way that it contains probiotics, and is super healthy for digestion.
I also learned that kimchi can be made with any vegetable: cabbage, cucumber, carrots, zucchini. Labor-intensive at first, most of the kimchi-making process involves simply waiting for it to ferment, which can take days or even months.
2. Taste a flight of seaweed.
Sprawling across three long folding tables, the central tent of the Korean festival was at least half full with seaweed. Though not quite as well stocked as the festival, the Grand Mart International Market in Centreville also sells a wide variety of seaweed. Like kimchi, seaweed is also very healthy, providing a necessary source of iodide. The center package of sesame toasted seaweed won out this tasting, in my opinion.
Not sure what to do with seaweed? I like to crumple it on salads and rice. Or you could try making the staple Korean kimbap – rice and vegetables rolled in sheets of seaweed.
3. Try Pa Jun.
Per my former students’ recommendations, Korean pancakes, or Pa Jun, are the common gateway drug for Americans into Korean cuisine. The pancakes – batter chock-full of scallions, carrots, zucchini and other vegetables – are quite delicious. Of all the Korean restaurants I’ve tried thus far in Centreville, Vit Goel Tofu makes the best Pa Jun.