Let’s Continue the Intangible Tradition of Kimjang
By Dakota Kim
Sifting through Korean seed websites in my very own Star Search for a stellar Napa cabbage seed that will transform into a blockbuster kimchi, I realize something funny. I’ll never see the faces of the generations of farmers who nurtured the genetic backbone of my salty, spicy, fermented Korean cabbage dish called kimchi. I’ll also never know their wives, the millions of Korean farm women who, in the collective kimchi fermentation party called kimjang, preserved hundreds of cabbages before the frost descended.
Some of those women were my ancestors, and I’m the first woman in my family line to break that long tradition of farm kimjang. Something about that breaks my heart. I was born in November, at just the time when kimjang happens, but I was separated from my mother’s Buan farm by over 6,000 miles of land, water and industrialization. Sometimes I imagine my grandmother, aunts and cousins are with me feting my birthday when I do my yearly fall kimjang.
Sadly, immigrant children aren’t the only ones to miss out on kimjang; the tradition has declined in Korea in general. An article in Korea JoongAng Daily (“Kimjang tradition stands test of time,” December 2, 2013) attributed the loss of kimjang to lack of kimchi storage space in “The Apartment Republic” that urban Korea has become. Younger generations flocking to smaller urban dwellings, single-person households and year-round cabbage availability have all contributed to the loss of kimjang.
When I was asked by a friend why some Koreans still do kimjang in an age where you can purchase well-priced, massive vats of kimchi at the store, I ruminated. “Well, it’s similar to sauerkraut, jamming or pickling as they’re done in the West,” I ventured. After all, before kimjang was minted a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage tradition, the process was just a way to preserve the cabbage harvest and its nutrients into a brutally cold, hungry winter.
But for many, kimjang is about ease. Even though preserving a large cabbage harvest is no longer a priority for most Koreans (we now do a couple dozen heads in an apartment — if that — instead of hundreds on a farm), it’s still more convenient in the long run to make a very large batch of kimchi than it is to make several smaller batches. Each time you make kimchi, it’s a messy process that requires a basin or platform so large you could take a bath in it, and you have to don gloves if you don’t want your hands stained red or hot to the touch afterwards, so you might as well do it only once every few months. Kimchi stays good for a long time, and you can modulate the temperature batches are stored at with different refrigerators, so there’s no reason not to make a big batch. It will definitely get eaten!
There are also taste reasons to do kimjang. Many think it gets better (read: riper and funkier) over time, and older kimchi is used for different cooking purposes (such as kimchi jjigae, a mouthwateringly funky stew). You can even do two stages of kimjang or store two batches at different temperatures, but that old kimchi is always going to get used, so there’s no worry with making a huge batch. For me, like many Koreans, homemade kimchi is also so much more delicious than the store-bought version and it can be customized in a variety of ways. For me, that means plenty of Korean pears and chives added.
Another reason to do kimjang? You can up your kimchi game, since you add different tricks from your mother, mother-in-law, grandmother, sisters, aunties and cousins. My mother always stops me from putting too much of the wet chile pepper filling between the leaves of the cabbage, but makes sure every leaf is completely covered with the filling — no leaf should be white and green by kimjang’s end. I often laugh at her admonitions, but no matter how much I try to make my kimchi taste just like hers, her decades of experiences seem to always create a much better end product. I hope that through our annual kimjang process, I can someday gain sohn-mat (a delicious taste that comes from the unique skills of particularly talented hands getting personal with the food) as good as hers.
The science of kimchi is as important as its craft — at least, when it comes to taste. A study from the Inha University biology department in Incheon says that kimchi fermented underground has a predominance of Lactobacillus sakei. My mother says that underground storage always makes the kimchi taste better, and this may be why: the microbes produced during a slow underground ferment are special. Wouldn’t it be amazing if American areas with similar climates to South Korea started burying their kimjang kimchi underground to see what Lactobacilli it produced?
But there are much deeper answers to my friend’s question. Why do kimjang in a golden age of readily available, tasty, industrial kimchi? The answer lies in the intangible, indeed. (Whenever something attains UNESCO Intangible status, I always suspect it’s just a step away from being trampled by the unrelenting feet of modernization.) With the advent of urbanization in Korea, kimjang seems to be fading and changing, and the deep essence of what kimchi means is also changing. Just like so many other intangible things, the true value in kimjang lies not in the practical process, but in the emotional byproducts.
When I ask my super-tough mother about kimjang, her eyes take on an unusually soft, glazed look. “Such happy times,” she murmurs wistfully. “I wish I could go back there again.”
My mother speaks joyfully of going from farmhouse to farmhouse putting up all of that farm’s cabbages with other women over laughter and song. The women would sing traditional Korean songs like “Arirang” and joke about their husbands, relieving some of the stress of living in a very patriarchal society as their children ran around them stealing bites. There is a beauty, a joy — a resistance, even — in women creating food together that is embodied by kimjang.
Kimjang celebrates seasonality, community harmony and ecological balance in a way that is utterly vital to recognize in times of extreme global warming. It is a collaborative process in every sense of the word. Not only do a village’s neighbor women come together, but many ingredients come together from many sources, and a family following the rhythms of the earth collects the ingredients for kimjang all throughout the year.
In the spring, fresh fish is caught and fermented into jeotgal, a variety of fermented seafood dishes; in the summer, salt is farmed by Korea’s many salt farmers; in the late summer, chile peppers are harvested and dried, then ground into powder; in the fall, cabbages are harvested. At the end, Korea’s famous ceramicists come into play, providing clay pots for kimchi storage underground — or these days, in refrigerated factory rooms or caves. There has long been a balance and an inter-reliance that comes with kimjang’s delicate ecological web. In an era of a hot earth and an even hotter-headed president, I believe we need to grow, make and share traditional food like kimchi collectively.
I’ve done small-scale kimjang in houses and apartments across the United States. But is doing kimjang in an apartment with a couple of other women the same as doing it outdoors at a farm with families you’ve known for generations, whose foremothers and forefathers warred and worshipped with one another as far back as ancient times? Do I know the songs to sing, or the fortification that comes when a dozen other women echo your voice in song? Do I know how much better kimchi tastes when I know the dozen hands that have contributed to its flavor?
Industrialization is not necessarily our enemy, and I embrace technology and modern medicine while continuing to use food and herbs as medicine. We may never go back to an agrarian society, and that’s okay. But our local farms can still hold kimjang parties for city folks to come and participate in on a large scale, and charity organizations can continue to welcome us to large kimjang events. Travel agencies can sponsor kimjang field trips and visits to the Kimchi Museum where we can learn about kimjang’s history. And you can hold your own kimjang party at home, in your backyard or even on your kitchen floor. Perhaps a new mobile app could even help us find others around us who would like to join in on a kimjang or other collective cooking party, so that we’re not always cooking alone. I’d love to head to a farm with a big group of people, harvest large stalks of brussels sprouts and big bulbs of kohlrabi, and make all kinds of brassica kimchi with a community.
Kimchi means so much more than a small, sterile jar you buy at the store for $5.99 and quickly consume merely to better your own gut bacteria. Kimjang means caring about and feeding others, bettering others’ lives with song and food. Kimchi’s best traits are intangible, and if we at least understand the tradition of kimjang and attempt to replicate it, we honor the global intangible history of its shared food production.
And if you don’t like kimchi, why not hold a traditional foods party of another sort? After all, it’s not the tangible that matters as much as the process. Beer, dandelion wine, jam, pickles, sauerkraut, kombucha, yogurt, miso, tempeh, sourdough, kefir and the like all honor the centuries of women who have preserved our cultures as strongly as our gut bacteria.
Originally published in Comestible Issue 6
Illustration by Anna Brones