So what do you know about kimchi?
Most of you have heard of it by now, maybe even tried it. Most likely at some Korean joint as a side dish, along with (I dare say) rather boring cuts of Korean “barbeque”. One thing in this disorganized and chaotic world is clear: Korean carnivorial culture is vastly understated and misunderstood. Misrepresented. That is a topic for another day. Today, we shed light unto a relatively unkown scene in kimchi culture – “gimjang”.
“Gimjang” is an annual familial (or communal) event, where folks gather to make fresh batches (and batches and batches) of kimchi. This tradition originated from times when refrigeration and greenhouse farming were non-existent. Vegetables used for kimchi – mainly, cabbage and radish – were harvested in the fall, and only in the fall. To stash away your vital supply of kimchi for the winter months (yes, I do mean vital), you had to act and act fast. Family and friends all came together, washing, soaking, chopping, sometimes over a few days. After makgulli and unbelievably delicious home-cooked meals here and there, the finished kimchi was placed in clay jars and buried underground. The science is similar to that of underground wine cellars; the cool earth would keep the kimchi refrigerated (but not frozen) for the months to come.
This scene is diminishing. At the very least, few people actually harvest their own cabbage and radish anymore for gimjang. More and more urban dwellers just buy their kimchi (available twenty-four months) at the local grocery chain. Understandably so, since kimchi-making, and especially the quantity involved in gimjang, is a pain in the ass.
I am proud to say that my grandparents still carry out this tradition. To the east of Seoul, on the doorsteps of the majestic Sorak Mountain, away from the bustling, smog-infested city, my grandparents live in a two-bedroom house they designed themselves. Yards away from their home, they have a patch of land – nothing grand but plentiful – to carry out their vegetation exercise. Cabbage, radish, cucumbers, peppers, shiso leaves and much more. Every November, they harvest their organic vegetables for gimjang, enough to feed themselves, aunts, uncles, cousins and many friends.
This is a chronicle of this tradition. A tradition that is becoming forgotten. A tradition that cannot be bought. The vivid images are the courtesy of my mom, a step-by-step memory of what is the only true way to make and taste kimchi.
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Right in their front yard, my grandparents dry the radish leaves and stem. These are a staple in traditional Korean gastronomy, and can be consumed in many ways – chopped and used in kimchi, or further dried and used in many soup dishes. Nothing goes to waste. When times were tough, especially during the winter months when nothing was growing and there were no refrigerators to stash Hot Pockets, these were crucial to survival.
The harvest is here. Many parts of Korea were hit by severe drought and flooding this past year, but these managed to survive. Hundreds of cabbage, radish, green onions, chilies and much more. Everything is organic. They take “from garden to kitchen” literally; go to garden, chop cabbage, carry cabbage to kitchen. If cabbage could move, they would be squirming as they enter the kitchen’s slumber. Fresh has a different meaning out there in the mountains.
The quality of the cabbage is largely determined by the quality of its golden innards. The inside should be a bright, rich yellow, should be firm with a crunch and should have a sweet aftertaste. These are gorgeous. The halved cabbages need to be soaked in sea salt and water overnight. This maneuver both seasons and softens the cabbage. Mind you that this day was one of the coldest days of the year in Korea. Brave men and women. Looks warm in these shots, but sticking your hands in freezing saltwater is no joke. But all is worthwhile for the kimchi stash.
Day two. The salt-soaked cabbages are rinsed (in ice-cold water) and drained naturally. The cabbages are wilted but not soggy. In the first shot, you may notice – besides the rockstar beanies – the huge clay pots in the background. That is the lucky jackpot, holding homemade condiments. Chilli paste (gochujang), fermented bean curd (dwenjang) and soy sauce. You can’t buy this anywhere. Korean dishes live or die by the quality of these pastes and curds, and homemade organic is the best you will find, anywhere. I was told that my grandma even made her own fermented fish sauce for the kimchi. I love my grandma.
As those cabbages bathe luxuriously in the pristine sunlight, awaiting their massage of sexy, red seasoning and filling, the crew works tirelessly, julienning the radish, chopping the radish leaves and stem, in preparation of the red filling that will soon smother the wilted cabbage. They will be wed in holy matrimony, inseparable.
Tub-sized containers are a must to prepare the filling for the hundreds of cabbage that await their fate. The julienned and chopped radish and friends are tossed with red pepper flakes, loads of garlic, sea salt, homemade fermented fish sauce, and some other secret ingredients that I probably don’t remember. All that is held together by a white, serum-like rice paste. Serious upper body strength is involved here. Everything is tossed and tossed until the red is evenly distributed, resulting in a mound of heaping lava-like, salty and spicy creation that is probably delicious by itself with a steaming bowl of rice.
In the end, here is what my parents brought back for themselves. And there were many, many more containers left. Back at my parents’ place in Seoul, these cartons will be placed in refrigerators specially designed for kimchi – called “dimche” – where they will ferment and ripen at just the right tempo. Yes, there exists refrigerators made especially for kimchi. Again, just think back to wine coolers. Fermentation at different temperatures, for different durations, will affect how the kimchi ripens. There are even different temps and humidity levels for different types of kimchi, as cabbage is far from being the only main ingredient for the dish. The vast array of different kimchi dishes is another lesser-known aspect of Korean gastronomy.
After a cold, hard day’s work, this awaits.
Pork belly, boiled with bean curd and onions until buttery soft. A few edible herbs from the mountains, tossed lightly with sesame oil and salt, edible roots tossed in the same way. Bowls of cabbage and bean curd soup. And a whole plate of that kimchi, now cloaked in ruby red, made just minutes ago. Simple yet elegant. Straight to the core. A true workman’s lunch in the quiet, calm mountains of Korea.
Even the local cats know where to find their grub that day.
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And that’s a wrap on kimchi. Done in tradition, done with family and friends, done right. Gimjang is a workman’s feast, a festive occasion where a year’s harvest, through sweat in the freezing mountain cold, is transformed into a dish that embodies the welcoming, earthy element of Korean culture.
The chronicle continues. I can’t wait to see what next November will bring.