No one can sniff out a napa cabbage sale like my mother, Jean. Not that the leafy brassica is all that expensive to begin with, even in its off-season during the warmer months. But in the fall, when napa cabbages turn sweet and butter-yellow, you can find them for as little as 59 cents per pound, which comes out to just $1.77 for a three-pound head. (For context, one head is all you need for a pretty hefty jar of baechu kimchi.) And yet, ever drawn to the ON SALE sign towering over the bin of cabbages at her local H Mart in Atlanta, Georgia, Jean often finds herself lugging home an entire box of about 10 heads. At some Korean grocery stores, as long as you’ve met a spending minimum, you can get one of these boxes for just $5. She swears she was once able to snag one for $1.99. “I don’t know why I do it,” she said. “It’s just your dad and me in the house. We don’t need that much kimchi.”
The attention my mother pays to cabbage prices isn’t just about frugality. It lets her know how the crop has done over the summer (though cabbage prices have been largely unaffected here in the States, South Korea is currently experiencing a “kimchi disaster” after multiple typhoons). Perhaps more importantly, seeing that “59 cents per pound” sign serves as a gentle reminder that winter is coming, and with it the time for kimjang, the communal act of kimchi making. Right now—in South Korea but also in various pockets of the Korean diaspora all over the world—is prime kimjang season, when friends, family members, and even neighbors gather to make huge batches of kimchi to last through the winter. This annual gathering is a socialist dream: Everyone pitches in, and everyone goes home with some kimchi.
It’s telling that kimjangs are traditionally done in a concentrated spurt of communal activity: Making kimchi is no breezy feat, especially in bulk. “It's a commitment,” says cookbook author Seung Hee Lee. “I do it just to say I did it (and to take advantage of winter cabbage).” It takes quite a bit of time, and there’s a lot of knife work involved (so many radishes to be julienned), not to mention it requires getting your hands on some plastic tubs the size of kiddie pools. Kimjang is sort of like doing inventory at a retail store, or making Thanksgiving dinner; the more hands on deck, the better.
The first step of the laborious kimchi-making process, though inactive, takes six to seven hours, since you have to salt the cabbage and wait for it to draw out excess water. Not only does this help with preservation, but it also ensures the vegetables are well seasoned throughout. There are many ways to brine your cabbages; my mother likes to rinse them first in cold tap water and then, using the force of her wrists, flick rock sea salt (a special kind she gets from Korea) in between each and every leaf. By the end of their brining time, the cabbage heads should be bathing in their own salty liqueur.
Then there’s the question of the kimchi sauce, which can require a long and nuanced list of ingredients. It should have a careful balance of garlic, ginger, fruit (like Asian pear or apple), gochugaru (Korean red pepper powder), various jeotgal (salted seafood), and, if you’re my mother, a couple different homemade syrups (such as plum, pineapple, or blueberry), although exact quantities and ratios vary from recipe to recipe. The julienned radishes are added to this fragrant miscellany, as is a starch slurry called pul, typically made from glutinous rice flour and water, cooked together until thick. The slurry helps with fermentation, giving the lactobacilli responsible for fermentation carbohydrates to kickstart the process, and it also adds bulk, allowing you to stretch the red-bright sauce to season all the cabbage evenly.
Applying this sweet, spicy, funky mixture isn’t just a question of smearing everything around in a bowl; if you’re doing it right, you have to rub it in between each leaf of every head. Jean likes to quarter her cabbage heads but keep the leaves intact at the root. This way, after rubbing the sauce into each layer, she can take the outermost cabbage leaf and fold it over the entire quarter head, essentially creating a little swaddled package of kimchi. It’s a satisfying sight, almost ASMR-inducing, watching her gently and neatly lay these finished packets into whatever airtight container she can find in her closet of endless airtight containers. “For kimchi, glass and stainless steel are best,” she said, disparaging the plastic ones (which, she’s convinced, can leach unwanted byproducts into the food). Historically, you would store kimjang kimchi in large earthenware pots and bury them in the ice-cold ground outside to ferment slowly. (Jean has a few of those in her closet, too.)
For those who love project cooking and getting lost in the monotony of repetitive activity, kimjang is an opportunity to reflect and to give in to the day’s work (not to mention look forward to the heady promise of homemade kimchi). And yet, as much as Jean loves kimchi and having a constant supply, these days that image of the box of raw napa cabbage sitting on her kitchen counter stresses her out. For her, it means work, because she knows she has to do it alone. Contrary to popular belief, many Koreans, both in South Korea and in America, buy their kimchi at the store. But even beyond the reality of today’s convenience culture, Jean posits that not many people in her generation (at least in her community in Atlanta, which has been a hub for Korean immigrants since the 1980s) even know how to make kimchi. Many of them came over in their early twenties, leaving behind the generation that knew how to do it. Jean, who lived with her mother-in-law (my grandmother), was one of the lucky few in her circle who ever learned. “That’s why I always do it by myself,” she said.
Irene Yoo, the owner and chef of Korean-American popup restaurant Yooeating, also distinctly remembers her mother’s solo kimjang nights in her childhood home in LA. “All the lights would be off in the kitchen except one, where my mom was sitting on the floor salting the cabbage,” she recalled. Making kimchi was one clear way for her mother to preserve those traditions from back home in Seoul. “Not to mention when she came to America, she couldn’t find kimchi. Back in the ‘80s, It wasn’t something you could just go buy a bucket of like you can now—you had to make it yourself.” She can still conjure memories of those big metal tubs and her mother’s pink Mommy Son–brand rubber gloves, the smell of the funky fish sauce and the sweet, salted cabbage. “It was such a long process. We would go with my mom to the store and buy all the cabbages. Our one job was always peeling garlic. My sister and I loved it because it meant we could take a break from homework. And then my mom would get annoyed that we were doing it wrong or too slow and start peeling it herself.”
For Yoo, the solo kimjang is a condition of our modern times, and a reality for many Korean Americans in the States. “Back in Korea, you used to live in multi-generational homes, but when that line flattens and Grandma and Grandpa no longer live with you—is it worth it to make several batches of kimchi every year?” she posed. Despite the traditional image of the communal kimjang, there’s something to be said for the soloist who only makes as much kimchi as their pod needs. It brings up another question: What is kimjang? And is it still kimjang if you’re doing it alone? The spirit certainly remains: You’re investing time and energy now for a grand bounty later. Especially these days, with COVID and the endless election season, finding a way to make kimchi, even if you can’t invite anyone over to help, is an apt metaphor for survival “in these times,” as more and more people are hunkering down at home and adapting to this new present. As a foodstuff, kimchi has always been more than just fuel for Koreans; it represents preservation and the will to make it through another long, cold winter. Kimchi is a light, crisp sliver of hope. It serves as a reminder that this, too, we can get through.
As my mother says, “You can’t live without kimchi.”