July 21, 2024

By Yi Woo-won


Since time immemorial, every Korean household has been busy and joyous with “Kimjang” – the annual culinary event to make kimchi, the indispensable side dish that is served at every meal for Koreans. This is well-timed because the fresh cabbages, radishes and other varieties of vegetables used for kimchi are plentifully available in the market. Also, the temperature between November and December is ideal for preparing the ingredients, mixing and finally preserving kimchi in the earthen pots in the ground.

Kimjang takes lots of work and time, from washing and salting the cabbages to preparing an assortment of seasoning ingredients, and finally, to combining them all together for kimchi. My mother would say that the flavor of kimchi varies significantly, depending on the quality and ratio of seasoning ingredients and the processing method. Some of the essential ingredients I still remember are garlic, onion, ginger, scallions, sesame seeds, red pepper flakes, salted shrimp sauce, anchovies and so on.

Traditionally, kimjang is the job of a housewife with the help of family members for a few days. But if they have to make a huge amount of kimchi like my mother did for our large family, then kimjang can become a really exhausting and time-consuming task. I remember my mother had to work continuously for over a week with a few of her helpers to finish the huge heaps and piles of kimjang.

My mother was a great kimchi maker. Therefore, she had a good reputation in the community and I was proud of her. When I was growing up, I always enjoyed seeing my mother making kimchi, watching her nimble and skillful hands working busily to mix the salted cabbages with the seasoning. When my mouth watered for a sample, she would give me a piece, asking me how it tasted.

She would tell me that kimchi tasted different from person to person depending on who had prepared it, even with the same kind and ratio of cabbages and ingredients. Therefore, sometimes she insisted and preferred to make our kimchi by herself. I thought this was because she felt a bit uneasy and disturbed if the well-meaning helpers possibly mishandled and spoiled her long-awaited yearly culinary delight.

Customarily, since ancient times, the new kimchi was stored in large earthen pots and buried in the ground. This was to keep the fresh flavor of kimchi lasting longer and to let it ferment and mature slowly and perfectly. I was reasonably enlightened when my mother told me that those earthen pots virtually breathed in the earth, helping the kimchi ripen properly over the long winter months. In addition, I admired the aesthetic view of those humble pots buried snugly and peacefully along the fence, adding an idyllic charm, especially after it snows.

After I got married, my wife always helped my mother during kimjang and worked hard to inherit her dexterity. Over the years, she seemed to learn some of my mother’s secrets. With time, her kimchi became wonderful but distinctly different from my mother’s. I realized my mother was right when she said, “Two people produce two different tastes of kimchi with the same vegetables and ingredients.”

Kimchi has gained global fame in recent years, not only for its multi-flavored, savory, refreshing taste, but also for its myriad of health benefits. It is low in calories, immunity boosting, slows aging, contains cancer-fighting agents and much more. I’m really proud of our time-honored, culinary tradition that is kimjang — the extraordinary wisdom of our ancestors.

Personally, I love kimchi for its range of flavors which are a result of differences in the fermentation and maturation process. Of course, I like best the freshly prepared spicy, hot kimchi, but sometimes I yearn for maturely fermented or old slightly sour kimchi. They are all delicious to me. But now that I have lost both of my kimchi experts, I may look like a pathetic old man when they see me staggering to the grocery store to buy flavorless yet expensive kimchi in a small package.

Yi Woo-won ([email protected]) lives in Waegwan, North Gyeongsang Province, and has been writing since 1986.





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