Tag Archives: kimchi

Versatility is an important characteristic in an ingredient, and few are more versatile than pork belly. You ask folks about Korean cuisine, and the usual suspects come up – BBQ, bibimbap, kimchi. In the grilled meats realm, bulgogi and galbi were the top vote-getters maybe five, seven years ago. But arguably in recent years, charbroiled pork belly has risen in the ranks.

But pork belly over charcoal is just one way to transform the animal to edible form. A recent stroll through H-Mart was enough to remind me of some sublime recipes.

I give you “Pork Belly, Five Ways.”

Here is the standard cut. Around half an inch thick, balanced layers of fat and muscle. Perfect for grilling with course sea salt.

Here is a similar rendition – “tenderized.” We also call this “honeycomb” pork belly. The H-Mart offering looks like an angry butcher had himself a tricep session. The idea is for the pork to cook faster with increased internal heat exposure, with added tenderness.

Pork and kimchi (specifically, “old” kimchi that is further along in the fermentation process) goes well together like chicken and waffles. The cut below is in smaller chunks for stir-frying with spicy-sour-pungent kimchi. Add peppers, onions, gochoojang, garlic, and rice wine, and your pork horizon will expand beyond your imagination. (Not pictured here are cuts for inclusion in kimchi stew. Those cuts typically have more fat, which produces a rich, hearty broth.)

I have not yet tried pork belly in shabu shabu. I would imagine it would be best in Szechuan-style shabu shabu (hot chili oil), instead of the milder/clearer Korean or Japanese varieties. The final cut is for boiling. In most cases, these two-inch thick cuts of meat are boiled in a simmering pot with dwenjang (fermented soy bean paste), green onions, onions, garlic, and other spices, until tender. Slice into centimeter-thick slabs and consume with raw oysters, garlic, and dipping sauce that is a combination of dwenjang, gochoojang, and sesame seed oil (folks call it “ssamjang”).


“When an almond tree became covered with blossoms in the heart of winter, all the trees around it began to jeer. ‘What vanity,’ they screamed, ‘what insolence! Just think, it believes it can bring spring in this way!’ The flowers of the almond tree blushed for shame. ‘Forgive me, my sisters,’ said the tree. ‘I swear I did not want to blossom, but suddenly I felt a warm springtime breeze in my heart.” (from Saint Francis by Nikos Kazantzakis)

A lingering question for the past several weeks has been “what makes a classic, classic?” Classic music, classic art, classic design. Daft Punk is great, but will they be great twenty years from now, fifty years, a century from now. Chopin’s melodies have been time-tested, generation-proved. Go back even further. The Beethovens, the Mozarts, and the Bachs’ melodies have not gone out of fashion. In fact, with time, their music has aged beautifully. Re-mastered, re-engineered, and re-performed, these classics became classics through the pressures of time.

If music, art, and design have “classics,” then surely, cultures also have classics. Cultural classics are best portrayed through food. That classic mom’s meatloaf. That classic chicken soup. That classic cherry pie. What does it mean for a culture to lose its classic things? Losing “classicity” means a shift in values. We are what we eat. Our food culture is a reflection of who we are as a family, a neighborhood, a region, and a country. Our values are imprinted in what we eat. To quote Kazantzakis again,

“Tell me what you do with the food you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are. Some turn their food into fat and manure, some into work and good humor, and others, I’m told, into God.” – Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

While Zorba speaks of what we do with what we eat, the basic premise is the same. Nothing speaks more of a culture’s values than its food.

How about that classic kimchi.

Classic kimchi, you ask, seems redundant, no? As a traditional Korean food, is it not already, by definition, a classic? I emphatically say no.

Most of the kimchi we consume is mass-produced on some factory line. Thousands of split cabbage heads shifted along moving belts, harassed by menacing gloved hands, carelessly tossed with mysterious red filling. There is nothing classic about a classic food produced in such a way. Kimchi was not always made like this. Kimchi was never meant to be some hip new thing to try at that hip new Korean barbeque joint down the street. At its core, kimchi, and the art of “gimjang,” was Korea itself. It’s about the soil. It’s about people.

In the coffee world, there is something known as the “Third Wave,” a revitalization of sorts for organically grown, meticulously processed, carefully sourced, expertly roasted, and artfully poured single-origin coffees. At the heart of this movement is knowing where your beans come from, which country, which region, which micro lot, which farmer.

The same applies to kimchi. “Third Wave Kimchi” is knowing where your cabbage came from, who grew your radishes, who processed your red chili flakes. The concept of farm to table should directly apply to any meaningful bag of kimchi you consume. Good coffee tastes of the soil it came from. Real pork tastes like, well, pork. Does your kimchi taste of the soil? Or does it taste like the metal and plastic conveyor belt of some factory?

There is beauty in mortality; its fleeting nature adds value to every second of its existence. Gimjang is vanishing. And its slow vanishment has breathed a new life into the tradition, as evidenced by UNESCO’s likely decision to list kimchi, and the making of kimchi, as an intangible world heritage. Kimchi would be Korea’s 16th item on the UNESCO list, which includes ancestral royal rites, a percussion instrument performance, and a five-thousand year old dance routine. The final decision is due in December when UNESCO’s intergovernmental committee meets in Azerbaijan.

My friends at Roads & Kingdoms recently published a masterful piece on how UNESCO will designate Japan’s washoku (traditional dining cultures of Japan) as an intangible world heritage (read the piece here). Whether an organization like the UN can save something as intangible as washoku – and gimjang – we many never know. But the significance is the UN’s recognition of a “process,” rather than the final “product.”

The world is watching. But the question is “what” it is looking for. Kimchi is kimchi. What makes this product special is the art of “gimjang,” the traditional communal event based entirely on the making of kimchi. The final product is probably UNESCO-worthy. What’s definitely UNESCO-worthy is the process of making it.

Last November, I wrote about the history of kimchi and gimjang, and its detailed, laborious process (read the piece here). If that piece served as an overview of gimjang, this piece focuses on the people behind the art, the faces of kimchi.

Microlots are not only applicable to coffee farms. Throughout the suburbs of Korea, there used to be countless microlots with cabbages, radishes, green onions, and chilies, the basics of kimchi. Around the end of October (according to the lunar calendar), households gathered together for a two-day kimchi marathon. Literally after moments of being picked from the field, the cabbage is cleaned, chopped, and bathed in ice-cold salt water. Radishes are peeled and sliced for the filling, which involves rice paste, fish sauce, and ridiculous amounts of red chili flakes. Usually, hundreds of heads of cabbage are involved, as the kimchi made on this occasion is meant to last the entire winter season.

Anyone who has been fortunate enough to take part in this proceedings will tell you: the best pork in Korea is the pork you eat during gimjang. It’s a tradition within a tradition. A kimchi sampler of sorts is prepared; some raw cabbage, cabbage soaked in salt water (not quite pickled, just overnight), kimchi filling, and buttery soft pork belly boild in light dwenjang. If you’re lucky, some fresh oysters on top. This feast is enjoyed by all the helping hands – family, friends, and neighbors. The pork is, sadly, no different from any other cut of pork consumed on any other day. It’s the occasion that makes the pork special. A day’s hard work (and more work to come) with family and friends, a bustling household with barely any room to spare, knees touching, aunts yelling, porcelain clanking.

The two-day ordeal produces loads of kimchi. Everyone that helped out takes a container or two home. It’s more than earning your share. You take away a piece of that familial gratitude, communal belonging, a sense of friendly cooperation before the harsh winter hits. It’s more than food. It’s more than just kimchi. You take home a piece of gimjang. Before it vanishes for good.

Every year, the number of households conducting gimjang is diminishing. It’s too much work. More and more people are moving to Seoul and other metropolitan areas, away from the soil, away from the farm. The nearest “supermart” carries ten different types of kimchi, all nicely packaged, ready to be consumed. In defense of this vanishing phenomenon, some people actually make their own kimchi, sourcing only organic ingredients and carefully applying the hand-me-down recipes.

But home-made kimchi is not “gimjang” kimchi. Granny Choe’s kimchi may be organic, is probably made with a grandmother’s love and care, but it is not “gimjang” kimchi. It lacks the fundamental ingredient of community, of seasonality. By definition, gimjang is not an individual activity. It begins and ends with the gathering of a community. The harvest, the cleaning, the chopping, the soaking, the mixing. It all revolves around a multitude of people.

Gimjang is UNESCO-worthy because it is the last string that binds Koreans together. It’s the bait that lures the old, the young, the rich, the poor, the haves and have-nots back to the soil, back to the community, back to the table. It screams, “Come take this cabbage, chop it up will you, soak it in that salt. Sit down and have some pork belly. Here, take a box of kimchi back with you. And another!”

An event that brings people back to the table. That’s classic. Time-proven. People-tested. When the rest of the world jeers at that slow, laborious, burdensome happening. When the rest of the world praises speed and convenience. When the rest of the world label food as a trend or fad. The old folks head back to their field, back to their soil, back to their gimjang.

But as this “last face of kimchi” disappears with time, who will preserve the tradition? UNESCO? Maybe. Not without an eagerness to get back to the soil. Not without a willingness to slow down, to step aside from the never-ending clockwork of metropolitan society. Not without a fondness for the old, the classic. Who will bring that back?

With bellies stuffed with fresh kimchi and the best cut of pork, the old folks have the final laugh. A laugh that may just be slipping through our very fingers.

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

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