Several years ago, on a drive home with my mom, my physical being and existence came into question when an unsecured jar of tongbaechu kimchi in the back of her 1995 Chevrolet Astro van was jostled loose by an abrupt stop.
The gallon-sized glass jar, packed tightly with whole won bok kimchi and all its juices, ricocheted off the back of the van and was sent barreling through a gantlet of rear-row seats, before shattering at the base of the center console.
I was 10 and prone to learning things the hard way, so I rushed to save the kimchi. My hand reached for the heap of cabbage, red pepper flakes and fermented salted shrimp. Instead, my right thumb met the sharp edge of a broken shard of glass.
My blood ran thick, dark and red. It mixed with the flow of the fermented mass. When I sucked the blood from the wound, I tasted only kimchi, and in my anxiety-addled mind, I wondered: “How much of me is me, and how much of me is kimchi?”
Kimchi and other iconic foods can have that effect on a person. These beloved dishes can be as much a part of a collective identity as they are a part of a diet, extensions of ourselves and our communities.
“If I run out of kimchi, I’m lost,” said Emily Kim, better known for her online persona of Maangchi. For 13 years, Kim has brought Korean cooking into countless home kitchens through cookbooks and her YouTube channel, which has nearly 5 million subscribers.
At home, kimchi is the linchpin of her meals. “Even if I have meat and I can make bulgogi, if I don’t have kimchi, I’m like, ‘What should I eat?’”
Such is the faith many Koreans have in the iconic dish. There’s a willingness to believe kimchi can save — be it a meal or the spirit — because it has come through so many times before. “As long as I have kimchi in my refrigerator, I don’t worry much,” said Kim.
Kimchi was born out of necessity, in the darkness and cold of the Korean winter, when fresh vegetables were scarce and — as in many parts of the world — preservation methods were a necessity.
The first records of Korean fermentation prowess appear in the 3rd century. Cabbage wasn’t the popular base ingredient, as it is today, and red chile peppers wouldn’t be introduced for centuries. Wild herbs and cultivated vegetables such as turnips, eggplant and bamboo shoots were turned into kimchi by salting them or dipping them into a paste, vinegar or grain gruel to allow them to ferment.
It was during the Joseon period (1392-1897) that napa cabbage and white radishes became the primary ingredients in kimchi, and gochugaru (red chile pepper flakes or powder) — now a must-have Korean pantry item — was introduced.
As kimchi become a fixture of the diet, its making took on greater prominence in daily life. For families and communities, making enough to last the winter was just as much about preserving a way of life as it was about preserving cabbages and radishes.
KIMJANG IS THE TRADITIONAL
kimchi-making process that includes fermenting seafood in the spring and grinding the summer’s red chiles into gochugaru. But it more specifically and generally refers to the period in late fall when families gather to turn hundreds of heads of napa cabbage into about three months’ worth of kimchi. (For more on the tradition of kimjang, see Page 14.)
Traditionally, fully prepared kimchi is placed into Korean earthenware jars, or onggi, that are made of clay. Onggi have microscopic pores that allow the jar to “breathe,” letting air circulate to aid the fermentation process. During winter, kimchi-stuffed jars would be buried underground or stored away from the elements, waiting to be unearthed in the spring.
These days plastic or glass containers and modern kimchi refrigerators often replace onggi and winter burials.
Although modern kimchi production has allowed grocery stores to stock ready-to-eat kimchi year-round, kimjang remains a vital part of Korean culture. From the way mothers, grandmothers and aunts would squat on their haunches while making kimchi to the oversized bowls and gloves they would use, the fine details are seared into the memories of many Koreans.
Even abroad, kimjang has retained its cultural significance.
Chef Chris Oh, born in South Korea but raised in California, has opened several restaurants in Los Angeles and one in Hawaii — Chingu Hawaii in Kakaako — and last year opened Um.ma in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset neighborhood. Umma is the Korean word for “mom” and the restaurant is his tribute to his mother.
The chef vividly remembers the “kimchi parties” his mother hosted. “Her friends would come over and they would sit on the kitchen floor,” Oh said. “… They would just be squatting down there with their pink gloves that would come all the way to the elbow. They would sit around the tub like a campfire and make kimchi.”
Oh’s parents worked long hours at a dry cleaner. They were strict, he said, but their spirits would be lifted whenever kimchi was being made. “You kind of saw the human side of them, the normal side of them where they would be able to socialize and have fun and have laughs. Like whoa, these are my parents?”
As first-generation immigrants, they must have taken great comfort in such shared moments, he said.
“Kimchi is almost like our security blanket,” Oh said. “Whether you’re in another country or if you’re broke and you’re poor and all you can eat is kimchi and rice, it’s still that sense of security and comfort that every culture, every person needs. It just so happens we get to eat ours.”