The Ritual of Kimchi-Making Day

Kimchi might be on-trend, but, to me, it’s a relic of childhood

The ingredients for making kimchi, displayed on a table outside.
Photo: Caroline Knox via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

As a child, I would eagerly await kimchi-making day. It was an all-day venture that started first thing in the morning. My mom would pull out bags upon bags of napa cabbages she had bought the day before. Every square inch of surface area in the kitchen was accounted for — large plastic tubs where my mom would slather the red spicy paste onto the vegetables, the heavy glass jars in which they would ferment, and various greens washed and strewn throughout the kitchen until they would be needed.

I’d watch in wonder as my mom painstakingly rubbed salt on each leaf of cabbage. As a Korean, kimchi was always something I had taken for granted. It was almost unfathomable to me that all the jars of kimchi I’d ever seen in my life had a backstory of someone addressing each crevice, nook, and cranny of every leaf.

By midmorning, the kitchen was uncomfortably warm from the porridge of sweet rice flour cooking over the stove. I would make a face at my mom as she poured sugar into the porridge as if to express my incredulity that such an ingredient even went into creating the spicy and tangy side dish we enjoyed at every meal.

My mother never measured anything. I watched her throw in garlic and ginger, fish sauce and salty brine, a heap of red hot pepper flakes to finish — it was as if she was connected to a higher being or a past self that made sure she wouldn’t ruin the proportions. This kimchi would turn out perfect, they would reassure us.

I watched her throw in garlic and ginger, fish sauce and salty brine, a heap of red hot pepper flakes to finish — it was as if she was connected to a higher being or a past self that made sure she wouldn’t ruin the proportions.

If I was lucky, she would let me stir all these ingredients into the porridge until it formed the familiar red paste. We would don rubber gloves and start the process of coating each precious leaf of cabbage with the good stuff. I would be hypervigilant of any pieces my mom took from my pile to coat again properly. I was determined to perfect a practice that seemed so deeply rooted in my culture.

3 people making kimchi in a large bowl on the ground outside.
Photo: Charles Haynes and Nate Beaty via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0

I would marvel at my mother’s meticulousness as she laid each piece of coated cabbage into the glass jars ever so carefully. She looked like a potter making a coil vase, laying down each coil just so to protect the structural integrity of the whole piece. Somehow all the kimchi always fit into the glass jars we had perfectly — never too much or too little.

She’d always leave the jars out on the kitchen counter for a day or two to give the fermentation process a running start. And once she moved them into the fridge, where they would remain for the next few months, she braced herself for my complaints.

“I can’t fit any Capri Suns or Gogurts in there with all the kimchi,” I would remind her, and she would always respond with tales of life in the old country where there were no refrigerators, no electricity, no juice boxes.

“You’re lucky that you didn’t have to dig a hole in the snow to bury the kimchi,” she would tell me. “We’ll eat most of it soon and you’ll have room for your snacks again.”

Kimchi was once a food I never dared take to school in my lunchbox for fear of ridicule. Now, it has a different reputation.

Even the most American of restaurants I go to often boast of fusion dishes with kimchi presented as a flavorful, nutritious superfood. Culinary revolutionaries are putting kimchi in everything from burgers to tacos.

But my favorite way of eating kimchi will always be with some plain white rice — a practice I wish more people would try.

My favorite way of eating kimchi will always be with some plain white rice — a practice I wish more people would try.

As the demand for kimchi grows throughout the world, Korean suppliers of the probiotic-packed dish have to tread a fine line in terms of marketing kimchi’s appeal. Dan Suh, managing director of Korea Foods Co. Ltd. has said, “the trick was making Korean flavors relevant because they risk being too niche in their original form.”

And yet, I hope that every fan of kimchi has given the original form a try because there’s just so much to experience.

Kimchi in stew with tofu.
Photo: lazy fri13th via Flickr/CC BY 2.0

With every day it ages, it develops in taste. Eating it unfermented gives you a bright earthy taste of raw cabbage and hot spices. Fermented just right, it’s a staple on the dinner table that goes well with anything. And overfermented, it’s a sourness that makes your mouth pucker — and that just means it’s time for kimchi stew.

I enjoy writing about society and culture, especially of the internet variety.

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