A couple of months back, news wires buzzed with bits on South Korea’s “Kimchi Crisis“. Korean farmers hit by a bad last winter, cabbage counts were low, heads were small… the national dinner table staple was threatened with a possible shortage! Oh no, what would Korea do? November is Korea’s kimchi-making season and families typically, buy cabbages in heaping bulks to make enough kimchi to last over winter…
Well, this past November you hardly got the impression there was a kimchi crisis at all. Giant-sized Napa cabbages were unloaded everywhere and in overflowing mass! Last week I asked for a class count of whose family made kimchi? 97% of my students raised their hands.
Korean families and their preservation of traditions.
Olympian proportions: Can kimchi be deadly or dangerous?
Before you gasp over the cabbage prices in my photos, let me add– the size of one head of a winter cabbage is a spectacle!
1. Little girl falls asleep on a pile of cabbages (notice the size comparison); 2. cabbage merchant sells cabbage, radishes and onions from his overflowing truck;
3. Napa Cabbages sold as a four-pack; 4. My hand trying to palm a cabbage.
Some of the kimchi produce were absolutely behemoth! The cabbages ranged up to about two feet in height and at least 10 inches in diameter. I can palm a basketball; but not a Napa cabbage grown in Korea!
The radishes looked as lethal as a billy club that could club someone to death and the green onions?… Even they looked dangerous.
Was it Korean soil or growth hormones? Either way, these Olympic kimchi players could be on Ripley’s Believe it or Not !
Kimchi making: Is the secret of spice a VIP affair?
Without a doubt, Kimchi is the flaming heart of Korea. It’s the national dish and these days, it’s as internationally reknown as sushi, pho and chow mein. There’s even an annual kimchi festival in Gwangju, which celebrate various kimchi and it’s makers across the globe.
But what’s its spice altar secret?
When Mi Hee, a fellow yogi who returned to Daegu after a 10 year-long stint in the U.S., opened her family tradition to me, I jumped at the offer. Many teachers at my school had made kimchi with their families; and I didn’t garner one invitation. Frankly, I’ve known VIP Hollywood parties that were easier to get an invite into! Either the secret of kimchi is really top-secret or like my experience this year, Korea is just not one of those ‘welcome mat‘ sort of countries.
Mi Hee was there to prove my year wrong. We drove out to the edge of Mt. Palgongsan on a road sneaking back into the mountain’s enclave. Mi Hee’s mom’s house was a beautiful contemporary French-Swiss chalet type design. Not at all the type of Korean house you’d think you’d make kimchi in.
Reflecting on a more opulent cabbage past?
In the middle of the living room, lay a huge sheet with big bowls of sitting kimchi family: the radish, the onion, the cabbage and a giant vat of spicy sauce. Mi Hee’s mom had already salted the cabbages overnight and prepared the spicy radish sauce base.
I stared at the baskets of secondary ingredients and then at the two baskets of shriveled cabbage heads.
” Last year we had 30 cabbages, this year is 24. It’s only 6 less but the cabbages we got this year are small. This year, we will not make as much” commented Mi Hee.
Twenty four heads of cabbage sure sounded like a lot, especially if they were anything like the ones I’d been seeing at my neighborhood markets.
“Yes, but after soaking in saltwater, they shrink. You see; they’re small.”
Mi Hee was right, after being soaking in salt water, twenty-four small cabbages looked small.
How many families will share this kimchi batch? Three. Mi Hee’s brother’s family, her mom and her own family of two children.
Healthy or deadly?
We spent the first hour working on adding flavor to the kimchi sauce. Koreans value freshness in their ingredients. Some of the ingredients were cut by hand at home; some were prepared from the market. Both ways, were prepared by hand and without artificial preservatives. Natural is the Korean style.
The fresh quality of Korean food makes it healthy, but the herbs, spices, chili paste and fermentation process adds to the health content. Thus, kimchi is said to have health benefits (great article by My Korean Diet here):
• lowers cholesterol,
• provides high fiber.
• high in vitamin C
• promotes intestinal health
However, if you’re on a special diet (i.e. vegan, macrobiotic or Ayurvedic diet) don’t read any further! Liquified oyster, fish sauce, salt and big bags of garlic are popular contents, though it ranges with family formulas and secrets. It’s all thrown into the stir for seductively flavoring.
Kimchi is high in~
• FISH /OYSTER SAUCE
• and of course, CHILI PASTE!
The sauce-making process:
Putting your ajumma back into it.
All around Korea, you’ll notice how older ajummas have severely hunched backs. Wanna hear my hypothesis of how they got that way? Years of hard labor, cardboard recycling and… kimchi making!
Making kimchi isn’t like a knitting party of women on a lazy afternoon. The female members of the family can bond over this ritual; but it’s not like watching a sexy-food movie like Chocolat, The Scent of Green Papaya or Babette’s Feast, where your eyes feast on the slow motion sexiness of a knife cutting into a turkey oozing with butter.
Despite Mi Hee’s mom periodically, dipping a taste-test finger into the sauce while girlishly squealing, “Mmmm…mashisoyo!“, my romantic eagerness discovered that making a nicely spiced cabbage is actually …back-breaking!
Tons of things are thrown into the large vat of sauce from radishes, fish sauce, blended oysters and large bags of garlic, making it an ultra-thick stir! I realized this as I sat hunched in one posture, stirring sauce meant to cover cabbage to last a family’s season.
Did we break chilies with my bare hands to make paste? No. Instead, we added double layers of plastic over our gloved hands!The added protection is to keep the strong chili paste from touching our skin and irritating it, as we spread it over cabbage leaves. I didn’t know making kimchi could be dangerous…
The cabbage spicing process:
Finally, in our crouched position, we went through each cabbage- leaf by leaf- chunking it with sauce. My back aches and I begin to feel a little light-headed from inhaling the fumes but I am still excited get the participate in the process. It’s the best cultural experience I’ve had this year! It makes me realize even more, the appreciation I should have for kimchi.
What’s the secret of red hot Korean spice?
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