GOESAN, South Korea >> Kimjang was once a ritual as timeless as the changing of the seasons. When the first frost came, families would create stockpiles of kimchi, storing it in large clay pots often buried in the ground. These pots of kimchi sustained them through the long winter and lean spring, when fresh vegetables were unavailable.
Both South and North Korea are so proud of the autumn ritual that they campaigned — separately, but successfully — to put kimjang on UNESCO’s list of the “intangible cultural heritage of humanity.”
“Kimjang and kimchi brought a Korean community together,” said Kim Jeong-hee, head of the Jinji Museum, which specializes in culinary history.
But in the age of on-demand grocery delivery and foolproof meal kits, the tradition is in decline.
Ha Si-Nae, 40, used to get kimchi from her mother, a common practice among many younger Koreans living in big cities. But when her mother became too old for the laborious, time-consuming task, Ha and her husband tried to make it on their own.
More often than not, they failed, and they found commercial products lacking. “Whatever else they make well, those big businesses can’t make kimchi as good as the one your mom or mother-in-law made,” Ha said.
Weary of commercial kimchi but unable to make their own from scratch, the Ha family traveled to a rural town to learn.
Goesan, a mountainous county in central South Korea, is famous for its scenic gorges, zelkova trees and three foods — corn, chile pepper and cabbage. Those last two are among the most important ingredients for kimchi.
Han Sook-hee, 59, and other women in White Horse village in Goesan, still make kimchi for themselves and for their children, who have migrated to cities. In recent years, the women started receiving requests for kimchi from their children’s neighbors.
Four years ago, a villager made a suggestion: Why not lead a kimjang workshop to give the village’s rapidly aging population extra income during the agricultural offseason and to help those who want to learn the art?
The festival was an instant hit.
“We provide the ingredients fixed and ready, and all the participating families have to do is mix them into kimchi,” Han said. “We also try to re-create the merrymaking atmosphere of kimjang.”
In a custom similar to an Amish barn raising, entire villages used to turn out during kimjang, helping one family make its kimchi before moving on to the next. Hogs were slaughtered and makgeolli — Korean rice wine — was consumed over songs and laughter.
During kimjang, families cleaned hundreds of heads of cabbage and soaked them in large tubs of salty water for a couple of days, turning them over twice a day. They slathered each cabbage leaf with a sauce made of chiles, garlic, ginger, scallion, radish, fermented fish and other ingredients. The cabbages were then stacked and patted down in jars. Lactic fermentation gave the kimchi its unique taste and texture.
Korean families don’t consume as much kimchi at home as their ancestors did. They eat out more often, and for eating at home they buy more factory-made kimchi, 38% of which is imported from China.
In 2018, 4 out of every 10 South Korean households said they had never made kimchi or knew how to, according to the World Institute of Kimchi.
But kimchi remains the food families like to share. Recipes usually vary from village to village, and from family to family, and are handed down through generations. A request for seconds is considered high praise and a source of pride.
In 2019, building on the success of the White Horse effort, the Goesan government hosted its first three-day “kimjang festival,” drawing 80,000 people. Last year, because of COVID-19, the county held a socially distanced version inside its stadium in November.
Families arrived with plastic boxes specially designed for kimchi fridges, a common appliance in many Korean homes. They paid $134 for 44 pounds of cleaned and salted cabbage and 16.5 pounds of kimchi marinade.
Standing around a table, each family began mixing, all wearing elbow-length pink rubber gloves, while village meisters looked on and offered tips. Steamed pork and makgeolli were available for free, though singing was banned for safety reasons related to the coronavirus.
The Ha family van left loaded with 11 boxes filled with 150 pounds of kimchi that the parents and three daughters had made with their own hands.
“We are all set until this time next year!” said Ha, looking contentedly at the neat stack of boxes. “Nothing makes a Korean family feel secure like a good stock of kimchi does.”