The Art of Kimchi

Like so many others, the start of the COVID-19 pandemic brought about many changes to our home, homemade 김치 (kimchi) being one of the better changes.

For those who don’t have an intimate relationship with 김치 (kimchi), it is a staple food in Korea. Most folks typically associate it with the traditional fermented cabbage variety but, in actuality, many vegetables can be made into 김치 (kimchi). Many, if not most, Koreans eat 김치 (kimchi) at every meal, including breakfast.

Until recently, my family had always relied on our local Korean market to purchase 김치 (kimchi) because it is notorious for being labor-intensive. Homemade 김치 (kimchi) has always been super intimidating to me.

I have vivid memories of living in Korea or with my Korean family members, watching with fascination as they pulled on their long pink gloves, settled around large bowls full of vegetables, and painted on the paste. I would sit rapt and waiting for an available morsel of 배추 (napa cabbage) for me to grab and devour.

Food has become one of the primary, and most accessible, ways for me to reconnect my memories and culture. It is one of the ways I have managed to share what little I still have of my own experiences with my children.

Making 만두 (mandu: dumplings) with my monkey and dragon.

While I was growing up with my adoptive parents, I would long for Korean food. As white Americans who primarily spent time in the south, Korean cuisine was not a household favorite. It would sometimes be months before I could manage to get myself a Korean meal at a local restaurant, and even then it wasn’t without a fair share of grumbling from my dad about the flavor and smells.

My parents are genuinely kind people who set out to provide a loving home to a child. They opened their home and hearts to me but were not equipped with any training or guidance on adoption a child of a different race. With hearts firmly set in the well-meaning and right place but with little understanding of how to fully support me meant there were some understandable stumbles along our path.

I recall a favorite story my parents like to tell people we meet (after they would explain that I was adopted) that to make me feel more welcome they bought a small jar of 김치 (kimchi). They would then chuckle about the smell and being told by my aunt that Korean people don’t keep it in their fridge in their house because of the smell.

For me, the smell of 김치 (kimchi) was the smell of home and it never had occurred to me that the smell might be off-putting to others. My mom made me aware of this sometime during middle school. She let me know that when I ate 김치 (kimchi), I would sometimes “smell” and that I should be aware of how this might impact others around me. I felt self-conscious about this “smell” she referred to. Did I smell? What did I smell like? Did 김치 (kimchi) have a bad smell? I was perplexed. Following conversations such as these, I would avoid eating 김치 (kimchi), or Korean food in general, to avoid further highlighting that I was different from those around me.

I have awareness enough now to understand this statement wasn’t made of ill-intent. Indeed, it was out of concern for my ability to fit in and be accepted. Unfortunately for me, my understanding of it now can’t change the lasting impact and hurt then.

Once I reached driving age and had a bit more freedom, I was able to get myself Korean food a bit more frequently, though finding friends to go with me was then the challenge. My connection with Korean food only began to grow more over time. Having a husband who not only was so open to it but has fully embraced it has made a huge difference. His support and encouragement to cook more Korean food at home and being so enthused to eat it all up gave me the courage to try my hand at making 김치 (kimchi) myself at home.

My two favorite stages of 김치 (kimchi) is fresh when it’s first made and when it is good and ripe (fermented). The salty, garlicky explosion of flavor just after painting the paste on the 배추 (napa cabbage) is so satisfying after the time spent creating it. Likewise, the pungent, spicy, and complex flavors that deepen after a couple of weeks feels like the cure to any ailment.

I began this process by reading and watching Maangchi’s recipe. For Christmas last year, my mother-in-law gifted me Maangchi’s recipe book, which has since become a staple in our house. Maangchi helped make Korean recipes more accessible for me which has allowed me to cook it more often, my husband would say nearly everyday.

I found yet another delicious recipe for 김치 (kimchi) on Korean Bapsang’s site. Experimenting with both these recipes deepens my understanding of 김치 (kimchi). My goal now is to take what I’ve learned over the past 9 or so months of making 김치 (kimchi) from others’ recipes to perfecting my own recipe.

In Korea, there is a traditional practice of 김장, or kimjang. 김장 (kimjang) happens in winter when families and friends come together to make large batches of 김치 (kimchi) to keep over winter months. I think a lesser understood part of the importance of 김치 (kimchi) is not just the food itself but, rather, the community togetherness of it. In general, food and eating is a very social event for Koreans, involving a lot of sharing and joy. It my attempts at perfecting my homemade 김치 (kimchi), I solicited the feedback of some in the small Korean community here by sharing with them my creations.

Finding these supportive connections have helped in my journey to combat imposter syndrome of not being Korean enough. For me that’s an ongoing beating back of those nasty words…not being Korean enough…not being (insert whatever) enough. Just not enough. Maybe, in part, that’s what some of this rediscovery is all about, squelching the notion that I’m not Korean enough.

Losing not only my biological family but along with them a connection to who I was for over nine years of my life has long fostered that untethered experience.

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