Spicy Novembers: Kimchi Making Season in Korea!

November is Kimchi making season in Korea so I was looking for a Korean family to take me in to share the process of making kimchi in Korea.

Making kimchi in Korea

According to the Telegraph U.K. 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. November is Korea’s kimchi-making season and families typically, buy cabbages in heaping bulks to make enough kimchi to last over winter. Now there was a purported shortage. But I hardly got the impression there was a kimchi crisis at all. In my neighborhood, 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.

Is 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 it a Korean family secret?

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. 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.

Korean history has an 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.

Is kimchi healthy or unhealthy

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):

Health Benefits of Kimchi

• 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.

Health negatives of Kimchi

Kimchi is high in

• SALT
• GARLIC
• FISH /OYSTER SAUCE
• and of course, CHILI PASTE!

The kimchi 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?  Hard work. 🙂


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8 Comments. Leave new

Great article. I love the stuff, and was very interested to get such an insight.

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[…] it promises to be a lot of cultural fun and I’m down from some good kimchi (click here for my kimchi in Korea […]

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mouthwatering ….amazing and nice article on Kimchi !! 🙂

Reply

After I married a Korean lady, getting invited to a Kimchi party wasn’t so unique. My wife’s family prepared 60 cabbages last year and this year, so I think they wanted to have all hands on deck – even though my knees started to hurt so they just told me to go watch T.V.

However, that is one of the nice things about having Korean in laws; you get subsidized foods. When the Kimchi turns sour around spring time, you can have kimchi jjigae, or steamed kimchi. The radishes seem to turn sour quicker than the cabbage so you can even make soup with that. We also get hooked up with rice and beans – we never have to buy that stuff, which is pretty awesome.

Reply

    @3gyupsal: Thanks for commenting. Wow- 60 cabbages! You must have a large family… kimchi making at your in-laws must have been fun to see with so many people there. BTW– I just learned how to make kimchi jigae nd jun with my recent kimchi earnings! It’s all cool how everything is freshly made in Korea.

    Reply
Avatar
Laura in Cancun
December 19, 2010 1:23 am

Wow!!! Great post and great photos 🙂 I’m glad you got invited to experience the process.

I’m surprised Koreans seem to be more private about their homes. This family’s home looks beautiful, from what I can see.

Reply

This “kimchee” making article of yours is better then the one I watched on National T.V., where it was shot in a Kimchee factory. Yours was authentically sooo-real. And your photos WoW.

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