Korea runs on kimchi. Spend a few days in Korea — even just one meal — and that becomes quite obvious. Resturants serve kimchi, or fermented vegetables, as a side dish. Convenience stores offer it in the pre-made section. Every family has their own variation. Kimchi is everywhere. After all, what food is more uniquely and recognizably Korean than kimchi?
So with an abundant supply and immense cultural prominence, trying kimchi is a necessity for foreigners, nearly unavoidable really. For foreigners visiting Seoul, the first taste of kimchi is likely to be napa cabbage kimchi, a spicy, fermented cabbage. When I first tried kimchi, I honestly felt a bit apathetic to the dish. I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it. In all fairness, there’s no real comparison for the flavor. Spicy, tangy, and crunchy. Kimchi is an acquired taste for most foreigners.
Having spent a few months eating kimchi, I began to grow more curious about this dish. Why are there so many kinds of kimchi? How come there’s kimchi literally everywhere? How do you even make this stuff?
My curiosity continued until I stumbled upon an event called Kimjanggan. Kimjanggan is an autumn festival for making and sharing kimchi — and the answer to my questions. This year in Seoul, the annual Kimjanggan Kimchi Festival lasted the first weekend of November. The event offered countless activities all centered on the national dish. Now, I may not be first in line when someone offers free kimchi, but I still want to learn about this unique Korean food. A short form and 5,000 won later, I had reserved a spot at the foreigner’s Kimjanggan learning to make kimchi.
When the Kimchi Festival came, I happily wandered the kimchi markets set up in the Seoul plaza. To make the kimjanggan, the event staff directed me into a large, red, blow-up tent. Inside, the room had stations prepared for nearly a hundred people to make kimchi together. Each station had an apron, gloves, bandana, and weird-looking container next to a tray with half a head of yellow looking cabbage and a pile of red spicy-looking paste. I picked a spot near the front with the master kimchi chef. First, we all dressed in the provided kimjanggan attire, including the face mask. Only then did the master chef enlightened us on everything kimchi.
Kimchi began in Korea thousands of years ago as a process of fermenting vegetables to preserve them through winter. Following the fall harvest, communities would gather to make kimchi together and celebrate their hard work on a kimjanggan. The regional variations in available spices and vegetables led to the hundreds of kimchi variations today. Even today this practice continues in rural communities, but for city-folk participating looks more like joining an organized kimjanggan event.
The specifics of making kimchi vary widely, but they always include four main steps. First, soak the vegetables overnight in a saltwater brine. Second, prepare the spice paste from other spices, vinegar, or even vegetables. Third, mix together the salted vegetables and the paste. Finally, let the kimchi ferment at least two days before eating. If possible, ferment kimchi in a cold place such as a buried kimchi pot or kimchi refrigerator. (Yes, kimchi refrigerators are actually a thing).
Considering that the entire kimchi-making process takes at least three days, the kimjanggan couldn’t teach us everything. Instead, they taught us steps 3 and 4, mixing and fermenting the kimchi. When I say mix the two components, I really mean smash the two components. The chef instructed us to press the paste generously into every cabbage leaf. The process was messy and awkward but incredibly fun. When I finished preparing my kimchi, I was provided with a fermentation bag to keep it in. I didn’t know fermentation bags existed until that moment, but I would have welcomed anything that contained my messy kimchi.
The second part of the kimjanggan, sharing kimchi, came two days later. Kimchi needs time to properly ferment. When I finally got to eat my kimchi — wow — the effort was totally worth it. Maybe I’m biased, but it was definitely the best kimchi I’ve had in Korea. The kimjanggan tradition also means sharing kimchi so I invited my community. We talked and laughed over kimchi like a cup of coffee. Besides, they agreed that my kimchi tasted delicious. I guess I’m basically on the way to being a master kimchi chef.
In the following weeks, I added my homemade kimchi to nearly every meal I cooked. I have to say, doing so made me feel closer than ever to understanding Korean culture. There are still days when I don’t want to eat kimchi, but these days rarely happen. More often I find myself increasingly enjoying kimchi. Whenever I eat it, I’m reminded of how often I undervalue the aspects of a foreign culture that initially seem distasteful. Rather, these aspects actually seem the most important to explore. By meaningfully engaging with them, my comfort zone stretches and my perspective widens.
Honestly, I think I may even miss kimchi when I leave Korea. Unfortunately, airport security probably won’t’ let me take some with to ferment at home. Even still, no one can stop me from taking this kimjanggan lesson beyond Korea’s borders.
Yours truly, A Kimchi Convert
P.S. Before you go…
If you want to make some kimchi at home (which I fully support & plan to do myself), I recommend this recipe as the most authentic to what the master kimchi chef instructed us at the kimjanggan. Remember, kimchi never goes to waste — just make it into kimchi soup or fried rice, that’s what Koreans do!
Don’t forget that Korean food is much more than just kimchi. Take a look at more mouth-watering Korean food here!