Korean kimchi’s secret ingredient: a taste of community spirit
Tim Alper is a British journalist and author who has lived in Korea for over 12 years. He currently resides in the U.K.
In the recent years, kimchi has become the hottest fusion ingredient for cooks and foodies around the globe. This is partly due to its spicy flavor and pleasantly crunchy texture, not to mention its many health benefits. What most people outside Korea simply call kimchi is a variety named baechu kimchi, which uses slatwater-soaked napa cabbage, white radish, garlic, red pepper flakes and a variety of mainly vegetable ingredients. High in antioxidants, cancer-fighting phytochemicals and probiotics like lactobacillus, this kimchi has won over many champions in the fast-growing health food industry.
Yet while most overseas-based kimchi fans buy their supplies from stores or make their own at home, the traditional Korea way of preparing kimchi is considerably different. The process of Kimjang, or “making and sharing kimchi,” was placed on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in December 2013. Anyone with even a passing interest in kimchi is well-advised – after the coronavirus pandemic subsides, of course – to visit Korea in November, the traditional peak of kimjang season. This time of the year is when vans laden with heaving piles of recently harvested napa cabbage and white radish are regularly seen heading to markets, grocery stores and even private households, pausing to unload huge batches.
When it comes to kimjang, Korean folks tend to buy ingredients in bulk because kimchi making happens just once a year. This is rooted in the time-honored tradition of making enough kimchi in fall to last three to four months in winter, a season when cabbage was unavailable in the past. The salt fermentation process means that kimchi doesn’t really spoil and instead gets better with age over the course of a year. As such, kimchi supplies are replenished annually in a huge burst of culinary activity that can span several days and require the hard work of entire families or neighborhoods.
Kimjang requires cooks to soak halved or quartered heads of napa cabbage in salt water for a day then drain them. Meanwhile, a ruby-red marinade is prepared using ginger, garlic, white radish, red pepper flakes and carrot. For extra richness, anchovy extract or fermented prawn paste (or both) can be added, though vegan-style preparation is increasingly popular. The number of ways to customize baechu kimchi is nearly infinite. Some add a layer of sweetness with grated Korean pear while others opt for more antioxidants and a spicy kick with daepa, or large green onions not to be confused with leeks. Spring and yellow (Spanish) onions are also common ingredients. One of the constants in all this is that the chopping and mixing process is done by hand, a painstakingly long affair with no shortage of hard work. In other words, no food processors or pre-chopped, supermarket-prepared ingredients are used in traditional kimjang.
And the tough labor just goes on. Next, Kimjang participants must apply a thick layer of the marinade to every leaf of the cabbage head. Once finished, the heads are wrapped into ornate-looking parcel shapes. In the past, these were then stored in large quantities in big earthenware jars kept outside. But as many Koreans today live in modern apartments, kimchi is kept in smaller Tupperware containers and often in designated kimchi refrigerators.
A taste of community spirit
Kimchi is ubiquitous in Korea and some eat it with every meal, thus this explains the huge effort that goes into kimjang. It is not uncommon for an average-size extended family to make 50 or so heads of baechu kimchi, ready to be chopped up before serving when ready. In my many years as a food writer in Korea, I’ve been lucky to meet kimchi scholars and government-recognized kimchi myeongin (grandmaster). These figures have turned kimjang into a precise science and an artform, respectively. But with the utmost respect to these brilliant individuals, kimjanghas nothing to do with science or art; it’s all about community. After my first visit to Korea in the mid-2000s, I enjoyed the taste of kimchi so much that I decided to make it at home back in London.
Making kimchi requires no great skill. It’s so easy to make that almost anyone with basic knife skills can do so. What it does require is an incredible amount of physical labor, and this is why so many hands are required in the kimchi kitchen. Kimjang on a large scale requires so many people and space for all the paraphernalia (giant tubs big enough to bather an infant in, huge sieves to strain the cabbage head on and plenty of elbow room) that a kitchen is often not enough. Instead, living rooms, guest quarters and even rooftops can be commandeered for the occasion.
Kimchi making provides the opportunity for endless chin-wagging with family, friends, neighbors or whoever else joins the fun. Kimjang kimchi is also considered a delicacy in Korea. So when visiting a family mid-kimjang, don’t be surprised if they tear off a leaf of marinade-sodden cabbage and thrust it into your mouth –kimjang kimchi is considered a delicacy in Korea! This has happened to me on numerous occasions, and though I prefer the deeper taste of matured kimchi several months old, this mouthful of flavor has prompted me to join the kimjang effort. That means squatting hours over giant tubs and muscles aching as I fill the umpteenth cabbage with marinade, but nothing in Korea says camaraderie quite like kimjang.
Sharing is caring
Kimjangdoesn’t end when the last head of cabbage is ready. Next comes that “sharing” that UNESCO so perceptively mentioned in 2013. Distributing boxes of kimchi to friends, coworkers and relatives is common and hark back to the days when most Koreans lived in villages and shared their kimchi with almost everyone they knew. As such, my fridge nearly every year fills up with fresh kimchi, often from the mothers or grandparents of friends. This gesture always makes me feel loved and part of a community that I don’t necessarily see but can always sense.
Corporate departments, small companies, city administrators or the residents of apartment blocks regularly rent enormous spaces to make hundreds of kilograms of kimchi to distribute to the needy and elderly. So while my home efforts in London produced a palatable kimchi even by Korean standards, the preparation process there was devoid of the most important ingredient of all: a sense of belonging. Making kimchi can be dome alone, but kimjang is a uniquely social experience. Thus November 2020 must have been a bitter blow to many Koreans, as coronavirus-related restrictions prevented them from gathering as they usually would for kimjang.
Once the pandemic subsides, however, people will feel their happiest when they can finally reunite for this tiring but joyous festival of food, as well as the quintessential manifestation of the Korean sense of community.
This article was published in the book