Like all the best traditions, it starts in the kitchen. This time of year, Korean families across the world gather for kimjang – the process of making kimchi, the fermented vegetable dish. In late November and early December, we don’t say ‘Hello’. We ask, ‘Have you finished kimjang yet?’
My own memories of this ritual involve being in the kitchen surrounded by my family and mountains of cabbage and radish. The two-day process starts with washing and salting the vegetables on the first day, followed by adding various seasonings and massaging them into the main ingredients on the second. Salt, chilli powder, red pepper flakes, garlic, ginger, spring onions and jeotgal (cured seafood) are rubbed and liberally sprinkled onto harvested vegetables, stuffed inside large earthenware jars and stored below the ground for the fermentation process to take place over the months that follow.
While napa cabbage and white radish are most commonly used for kimchi, each region of Korea has its own preferred vegetables, as well as different variations on seasoning. In the colder regions up north, for instance, less salt is added, while those in the south add more salt and chilli, resulting in a redder, spicier final product. Meanwhile, residents along the eastern coast also throw in raw seafood and salted cod.
It made perfect sense in a time when produce had to be preserved to last from one season to the next. But as Korea’s cities started to grow in the mid-20th century, finding underground space to store kimchi jars became a major issue. For a while, it wasn’t uncommon to find jars of kimchi buried beneath the common areas of apartment complexes. The perfect solution didn’t arrive until the 1990s, when kimchi refrigerators – designed to facilitate the fermentation process while also containing its funky smell – were introduced and became common in South Korean households.
Each year, South Koreans consume approximately 1.5 million tons of kimchi for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And according to a 2011 survey, more than 70 per cent of Korean families still practise kimjang – it’s even on Unesco’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. A number of charities also organise kimjang to make kimchi for the nation’s underprivileged families. Above all, this activity has come to be seen as a reaffirmation of Korean identity. Kimjang continues to thrive as winter comes and we head to the kitchen, surrounded by family – and a mountain of cabbage.