Kimchi is an essential food that has been much on my mind during the WorldWide Quarantine of the past couple weeks, because my supply is (well, was) running low. So I will tell you about kimchi. Maybe I’ve already said much of this before, here in this space, but too bad. I’m in quarantine.
I don’t eat kimchi every single day of the week. But it’s very rare that I don’t have kimchi in the fridge, and when life gets complicated it’s an important source of comfort. So we’ve been eating quite a lot of kimchi lately.
A few times a year, I (like many Koreans who live here in the Milwaukee area) drive down to the huge H Mart in Niles, Illinois, a northern suburb of Chicago. It’s the closest proper Korean grocery source, and it’s easily worth the 90-minute drive. I stock up on Korean supplies — big bags of sesame seeds and red pepper powders, various smelly pastes and oils, correct noodles made of wheat and rice and sweet potatoes, dried seaweeds, cases of Nongshim ramen, properly skinned mung beans, roasted barley for tea, rice cakes, specially sliced meats, salted fishes, fresh things I can’t find anywhere else like sesame leaves and soy bean sprouts (with the big yellow heads) and enormous persimmons — and I gift myself some pre-made banchan (side dishes) and a giant jar of someone-else-made-it kimchi.
But most of the time I make my cabbage kimchi myself, if I can find the right ingredients, and of good enough quality. These days, there’s sea stuff in store-made kimchi and in the recipes Americans are making. I don’t know if it’s actually true, but my mom told me many years ago that this is because Seoul-style and southern-style kimchi is predominant here. She prefers the kimchi of her youth, and the kimchi her mom made, way-northern-style from the mountains. I do too. No shrimp, no fish sauce. Vegan by default, only we don’t call it that. We just call it kimchi.
In Korea when I was a kid, my grandma made kimchi in the fall when the cabbage harvest came in. It was old school. She made a massive amount of kimchi and buried clay pots of it in the back yard. It was one of the great fun mysteries of my childhood, wandering into the back yard with grandma, watching her kneel down and pull a big hunk of kimchi out of the ground. In the spring, the last dregs of kimchi would film over with some gossamer white stuff. She would just pull that off with her hand, and the kimchi underneath it was fine.
I expressed concern once – only once. She and mom dismissed my worries with a thud. Grandma snapped, “It’s just medicine.” Mom laughed and added, “It’s just penicillin, it won’t hurt you, it’s good for you.”
When I went to Oberlin College, mom sent me with a single-serving rice pot and some rice in my luggage, and a kimchi recipe in my heart. I was so f#*ing clueless that I did not understand how incredibly ethnic this was. My mom always told me I was “American not Korean.” But she was wrong, and anyway I know what she really meant was “be as white as you can, because that’s how you will survive here.”
But there’s no escaping our ethnic origins, the look of our eyes and faces, especially in these xenophobic times, and even for half-breeds like me. I’m American and Korean.
Anyway so yeah, rice pot. I made kimchi at Oberlin, in the shared kitchen of my dorm, and I stored a good-size jar of it in my little dorm room fridge. My roommate was a white girl from Georgia and she was completely grossed out by the stink of it. I was undaunted and unapologetic. She ate white bread, I ate kimchi and rice.
My first attempts at kimchi went wrong a lot of little ways, but honestly, even bad kimchi is pretty good. I entered the kimchi desert for a time in my 30’s when I was working a lot, and stopped making any for years. When I tried again after Jesse was born, I really blew a few batches. I called mom in frustration. “I keep messing up my kimchi. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”
The tone of her voice spoke of scorn and disappointment. “How can you mess up kimchi? It’s the easiest thing to make!”
I asked her anew for her recipe, only we would never call it that. If I had asked for “a recipe” she would have mocked me. There’s just making kimchi. Remind me how you do it, mom.
Let me share her recipe with you:
Use good Napa cabbage, not too much green stuff. Salt it and cover it with some water.
(How much salt, mom? Enough. Taste the water with your hand, it should taste salty.)
Cover it and let it sit on the counter until it’s done.
(How do you know it’s done, mom? You just know. Feel the cabbage and it should feel right.)
Wash it really well, because otherwise your kimchi will be too salty.
Make the spice for it. Red pepper flake, garlic, sugar to make it minty, green onions. You can grate a carrot if you want.
(How much of anything, mom? Depends. Taste it with your hand. Make it taste good is all.)
Use your hands to mix it all together, and then pack a big jar with it, nice and tight. Swirl some water in the mixing bowl and pour that over the kimchi for some extra juice.
Put the lid on loose and leave it on the counter.
(Mom, how do I know when it’s done and ready to go in the fridge? You’ll know.)
That is still how I make kimchi. My only innovation is that I often grate a piece of daikon instead of a carrot. Here’s the batch I made yesterday.
The packed jar will sit on the counter on a towel. I will just know when it’s done. It will come alive, and the jar will explode gently, leaving that towel red with juices.
My old, running-out kimchi is in the smaller jar:
We’re set for a little while.
Kimchi isn’t a vaccine against any illness, but it is definitely good for you. And for me, each bite is a reminder that thousands of years of Korean culture and cuisine will likely outlast COVID-19.