All the Ways Traditional Kimchi Makes Its Mark in Life

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Photo by Seung Hee Lee, design by Alexis Lira

Search for “kimchi” and you’ll get roughly 28.8 million results. It’s one of the quintessential Korean staples that have entered the foodie mainstream.

The global enthusiasm for Korean culture started in the late 1990s with Hallyu, or the “Korean Wave,” and ever since, interest in Korean food has been spreading like wildfire. Korean chef and Youtuber Maangchi has more than 3.6 million followers, and her video subtitles are translated by volunteers into languages including Arabic, Hungarian, Malay, and Swahili.

But with this popularity comes oversimplification. The top kimchi recipes in online search results are by non-Korean cooks, which results in millions of people reading comments like these:

“It’s basically spicy, fermented cabbage, kind of like the idea of sauerkraut, but with a Korean flavors — garlic, ginger & chilies,” one whole-foods recipe blogger wrote.

“Yes, it is stinky and bubbly and more than a little wild, but WOWZA the taste and the texture are so worth it,” another said, describing the range of smells from “super mild” to “mega funky.”

Sure, kimchi is healthy and good for your gut, but it’s also more than that. The history of kimchi is deeply interwoven in the fabric of Korea. According to the South Korea Traditional Cultural Experience Center, the first mention of it stretches back 3,000 years to a Chinese Book of Odes (one of the oldest existing forms of Chinese poetry).

For some, kimchi was literally survival. Housing structures during Korea’s prehistoric age indicate that foragers led sedentary lives and therefore had to devise ways to store and preserve legumes to survive. Pickled vegetables like kimchi were buried underground in earthenware pots called hangari to stay cool and fresh.

While Western mainstream discourse tends to simplify kimchi to cabbage, the piquant zest of the kimchi flavor has traditionally been applied to a multitude of ingredients. Yoon Sook-Ja, a Korean author and the president of the Institute of Traditional Korean Food, included roughly 40 variations of kimchi recipes in her cookbook, using asparagus, eggplant, ginseng, oyster radish, and cucumbers as the foundation.

So we thought, why not get the record straight? Why not show how vibrant, personal, and diverse kimchi can be? Kimchi, after all, is also about community and connection.

To bring to life the personal stories and memories, as well as the regional diversities, tied to making kimchi, Greatist spoke to three Korean female home cooks and chefs from different gohyangs, or hometowns. They’ve also each shared one of their specialty recipes.

3 kimchi recipes that are just like grandma’s:

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Park Choon-Hee (61); Hometown: Gunsan City of North Jeolla Province; Currently: Dallas — Photo by Grace Moon, design by Alexis Lira

“I’m a woman who has pride,” Mrs. Park says, squatting down in front of a crimson tub of kimchi. “Once I set my mind to do something, I do it well. Even when you go to Jeolla province today, not many people make kimchi traditionally with a broth like I do.”

Mrs. Park learned to be resilient from a tender age, when she lost her mother as a teenager.

“My mother was only 42,” she tells us. “And so I was nurtured and trained by my grandmother to survive without my mother and fend for myself. We made everything from scratch, and my grandma never wrote down anything. Everything I make today is still from my visual memory.”

Five years ago, before arriving in the States, Mrs. Park ran a bustling restaurant near her hometown. Her kitchen was known for delicacies including blowfish, or bokeo, which contains poisonous toxins and therefore requires painstaking precision to clean properly. Mrs. Park’s Jeolla-style pork bulgogi was also popular among locals.

When she moved to Dallas, Mrs. Park stuck to what she knew best. Even though she couldn’t get blowfish in the United States or cook her bulgogi over a charcoal fireplace like she used to, she held onto her hometown memories. In June 2018, she opened a restaurant, Ddo Wa Ddo Wa, in one of Dallas’ Korean hubs to rekindle her memories of cooking back home.

“I’m still searching for the kimchi taste of my hometown,” Mrs. Park says as she stuffs a handful of raw pickled cabbage into my mouth to taste. “The kimchi here makes my heart hurt. When it’s shipped frozen overseas, it never retains its freshness. The vegetables in America are so different from the ones in Korea, too, because of how torrid the summers are in Dallas. That’s why my [kimchi paste] is so important. It’s what keeps it alive.”

Wiping sweat from her brow as she spends more than an hour coating each individual strip of cabbage in the red broth paste, Mrs. Park says she’ll make watercress kimchi tomorrow, radish kimchi the next day, perhaps pickled bean sprouts after that, usually with the same kimchi paste.

“This is why people keep coming back to eat my kimchi. Because of the jung sung [dedication] I put into it. The more hands that go into making it, the more delicious the kimchi will be.”

Click here for Park Choon-Hee’s traditional Jeolla-style broth-base kimchi recipe.

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Joo Myung-Jee (54); Hometown: Andong City of North Gyeongsang Province; Currently: Maryland — Photo by Jisu Song, design by Alexis Lira

“In Korea, if you say, ‘Oh, that person is so jjah!’ [salty], then you’re implying that they’re stingy,” Mrs. Joo explains over the phone in Korean. “But in Andong, to be jjah means that the person is very thrifty with their resources. Sharp and precise.”

Andong is far from the water, so its people had limited access to jutgal, or salted fish. As a result, they had to experiment with salt, brown pepper, and brewing sticky rice starch to create the sharpness that could parallel the freshness of kimchi produced by other regions.

Mrs. Joo is wistful as she recounts her earliest memories partaking in kimjang, the communal activity of making and sharing kimchi before the winter.

“Every winter, my mom and I would pluck the cabbages and wash them while sitting criss-cross on a straw mat near our hanok-style house,” Mrs. Joo says. “It was cold in the countryside, but we’d gather closely with our neighbors and make kimchi together for one entire week. For free and for everyone in our village.”

As a child, Mrs. Joo tended to the hangari (earthenware pots) that nursed her kimchi on a daily basis. She has continued that tradition in her Maryland house, where she has more than 10 jars filled with not only kimchi but also homemade doenjang (soybean paste), soy sauce, and red pepper paste.

She received the name “kimchi queen” from a church friend 10 years ago after becoming known for distributing jars of kimchi within the community. “It’s for my family, people I care about, who need my love and cooking,” she says. “That’s when I make the most delicious kimchi — when it comes from my desire to see those people in my life happy and healthy.”

“Like people, kimchi changes with time too,” Mrs. Joo says. “Younger generations have been gravitating towards sweeter tastes, and nowadays it’s a global world. But even though there are online recipes, every time someone makes kimchi it will taste different, because it’s an art that takes intuition and practice.”

Mrs. Joo pays a visit to her hometown in Andong every November to help make kimchi. She hopes to publish her own traditional Korean recipe book someday so her children can continue to preserve Andong’s dishes even when she is not there.

People in Mrs. Joo’s hometown would often make both kimchi and jjanji (vegetables pickled in salt — think of it as a first cousin of kimchi). One of Mrs. Joo’s favorite kimchi-style dishes is moomallengee, a sweet and spicy dried radish.

Click here for Joo Myung-Jee’s seasoned radish recipe.

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Seung Hee Lee (36); Hometown: Cheongju City of North Chuncheon Province; Currently: Atlanta — Photo by Seung Hee Lee, design by Alexis Lira

“Korean food is like a growing pain. There’s no doubt that it’s entering mainstream cuisines. The reason I wrote my cookbook was that a prominent food magazine I knew of featured a kimchi recipe that used Sriracha,” says Lee, who is the founder of the blog KoreanFusion. “I was ballistic. More first and second-generation Koreans like me are using their command of English to try and set the record straight by introducing traditional recipes. But we’re also pushing back against a vast overgeneralization of Korean food in an industry that caters to the Western palate.”

Lee is an epidemiologist (a public health professional who studies patterns and causes of disease) by day and, in the time she finds outside of work, a pop-up chef, nutritionist, and author. As an undergraduate, she dedicated her weekends to attending classes at Taste of Korea, an organization whose curriculum focuses on honoring traditional royal cuisines that are also adaptable to modern-day kitchens.

“My journey with kimchi started when I was just 3 years old,” Lee says. “My paternal grandmother was my primary caregiver, and most of our time was spent either in the kitchen or out in the veranda. Even when I was a baby, she’d teach me how to identify when the behchoo [cabbage] was ripe. [If] it snapped when I bent the yellowish center piece, then it wasn’t fully salted.”

Lee’s grandmother made Gyeongsang-style kimchi, which is known for its aggressive seasoning. She would often encourage playful rivalry by poking fun at Lee’s Chuncheon side for their milder sauces.

“The southern part of Gyeongsangdoh is along the coastal area where there is an abundance of seafood and warm weather,” Lee says. “My grandmother threw [in] chunks of beltfish smothered in red pepper paste to help our kimchi ferment. The taste is very oceany and fiery all at once.”

As Lee travels around the world to teach cooking classes and host pop-ups, she serves as a modern ambassador for her grandmother’s traditional recipes. Her ultimate hope is to bring justice to the history and stories of Korea’s food.

“It’s not just about kimchi. It’s also about how it came to be what it is today. There is a reason that kimchi has so much paste. Back then, it relied on salt for preservation, along with garlic, ginger, and green onions. But when Koreans realized that gochu [red pepper] had a preservative function, they ended up using it,” Lee says.

“The fiery taste got more aggressive during the war, when Koreans were impoverished and needed to prevent their food from spoiling. I dislike it when people sort of assume all Korean food is spicy, because there is a history of oppression behind it.”

Lee hopes that in 30 years or so, the majority of America will have kimchi in their fridges. In the meantime, she continues to enjoy kimchi the way her grandma used to make it for her: wrapped around a juicy piece of steamed pork belly with soft white rice inside.

Click here for Seung Hee Lee’s fiery Gyeongsang-style kimchi.

Grace Moon is a freelance writer who writes about food, diaspora, and Korea. She’s written for “The Dallas Morning News,” Her Campus, and Food52.

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