Live from Korea, It’s Gimjang (Kimchi Making) Weekend!

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Live from Korea, It’s Gimjang (Kimchi Making) Weekend!

Making kimchi for the winter

Live from Korea, It’s Gimjang (Kimchi Making) Weekend!

This is the day, a very important day, when we Koreans prepare kimchi for the winter and the upcoming year. What did you say, it sounds like a lot of work? Oh yes, indeed. It is lots and lots of work. This is the day when a year of work finally come to fruition.

Kimchi is the core of Korean cuisine, culture, and people’s identity. I’m pretty sure it flows through our veins. Korea is kimchi, and we are proud of it. To continue our affection for this wonderfulness, we need to work hard. This time of the year, everyone’s busy preparing for gimjang (or kimjang).

Harvesting a full-grown radish from the field

Harvesting a full-grown radish from the field

 

Gimjang is a traditional process of making and preserving kimchi, and it has been a recurring occasion throughout my life. Once a year exactly. During one of my very first gimjangs in the kindergarden, I was in charge of radish kimchi (ggakdugi). I was not happy because I wanted to work on cabbage kimchi, which was my favorite. I remember gigantic piles of cabbages in our small house. As the oldest daughter in the family, my mom used to make kimchi for the entire extended family. Our neighbors exchanged some kimchi after the annual gimjang, but my mom’s was, and still is, the best. It’s quite usual to have five to ten different types of kimchi in the fridge in a normal Korean household. Right now, we have… fresh, a bit aged, spring onion, water kimchi (mulkimchi), last year’s, and two different kinds of fresh kimchi from our relatives. I’m pretty sure at least 30% of my body is made of kimchi.

 

It takes a lot of skills to perfectly season those cabbages

It takes a lot of skills to perfectly season those cabbages

 

This year I had an opportunity to participate in this important process. My uncle has a property up in the mountains in Gangwondo Pochon where he co-farms various vegetables with my extended family. It’s about 1.5 hours drive from Seoul. It’s almost a complete farm house where people can sleep, cook, relax, as well as farm. There are three main crops here: cabbages, radishes, and chili peppers, which are the key ingredients for kimchi. Throughout the year they worked hard for this very moment. The chili peppers were planted, harvest, dried, and already powdered. Over 100 cabbages were ready to be harvested, as well as radishes and mustard leaves. There’s a small house dedicated to growing mushrooms, and a small patch was used for growing sweet potato. Everything grows organically here.

My uncle's property in the mountains, Gangwondo Pochon

My uncle’s property in the mountains, Gangwondo Pochon

 

Gimjang is probably the most difficult food-related process in Korea. Preparing the ingredients are complex, but matching the perfect ratio of all the content is even more challenging. Because the whole process is for fermentation, you need years of experience to have the right tastebuds. Weather is also an important variable. Not to mention that this is a very labor-intense process. The key ingredients are: cabbage (specifically Korean cabbage), spring onion, radish, mustard leaves, garlic (has to be already grounded and aged), geotgal (salted and aged seafood, usually anchovies and shrimp), ginger, well-cooked rice porridge, and last but not least, chili pepper powder.

Let the kimchi making begin!

Let the kimchi making begin!

 

We started by harvesting cabbages from the field. Every family gets 10 to 30 cabbages. We delivered them to the main house for washing. My mom cut the cabbages in half, washed, and put them into the big container for salting. We had four big tubs filled with cabbages. Then we had to wait until they lost their crispness. It would take about 5 hours. Meanwhile, we prepared the rest of the ingredients. Spring onions and mustard leaves needed to be chopped small. Radishes are usually julienned. We mixed all the ingredients together in a big tub. It’s the key seasoning to decide the taste of your kimchi. Controlling the portion of each of the ingredients is important, as well as the amount of the whole seasoning. Making too much is not good, but too little is even worse.

Cabbages perfectly lost its crispness

Cabbages perfectly lost its crispness

 

The salted cabbages were all washed by veteran kimchi makers (my Aunts and mom) overnight. Then it was time to turn them into kimchi. In this process, cabbages are mixed with the big tub of seasonings, which each family made separately. You have to put just the right amount of the seasonings between every cabbage leaf. It was amazing to watch four seasoned women seasoning cabbages. Just like that, containers were filled with kimchi and ready to age. We have four big containers of kimchi aging at the moment. It will be eaten until this time next year. Ah, the joy of fermentation.

Mixing this seasoning requires the highest level of experience

Mixing this seasoning requires the highest level of experience

Mixing this seasoning requires the highest level of experience

Mixing this seasoning requires the highest level of experience

Kimchi all ready to be stored and aged

Kimchi all ready to be stored and aged

 

My families worked so hard for this moment. They poured their time and affection into the plants, and harvested the healthiest and most delicious crops I’ve ever tasted. The traditional ways of living, like agriculture, are not a favorable occupation anymore, but it is certainly one of the most important factors in everyone’s life. Because we farmed all the vegetables ourselves, we know they’re safe to eat. And it’s more delicious. Gimjang is also the reason why these busy people are here, spending weekends together. It’s hard work, but it’s a noble excuse to spend more time with the family. Working on the farm in the mountain and making food for the rest of the year, what’s not to like?

Did you know gimjang is also the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage?

I can’t wait to taste our kimchi next year.

This is how we call each other in the field.

This is how we call each other in the field.

Three of my aunts and my mom working hard

Three of my aunts and my mom working hard

Juno Kim
Juno Kim
Juno Kim, a happiness-seeking storyteller. Photographer, writer, and trained mechanical engineer. Life-long nerd. I left the cubic farm to follow my true love: the world. A firm believer of serendipity, astronomy enthusiaster, and living by passion and love in life. Currently, on a quest to discover stories and find the place where I can call 'home'. Follow my journey through @RunawayJuno and Google+ .

9 Comments

  1. Abi says:

    Thanks so much for this interesting glimpse into a practice I know nothing about! Hope your kimchi tastes good!

  2. Next time, I would like to come, observe and eat all the kimchi 😉

    Oh wait, that’s not how it works?!

  3. Carol says:

    Wonderful to see! I’ve made small batches in my kitchen in Toronto that I’m sure wouldn’t hold a candle to your mom’s and aunts’ but I LOVE IT!

  4. Leah says:

    Wow, it takes an entire year to age kimchi!? I had no idea! Such an intense process! I’m sure it will taste delicious knowing you made it yourselves 🙂

  5. Nicole says:

    Oh Juno this was a fantastic insight into the processes and love that goes into making one of my favourite Korean dishes. 🙂 Thank you for sharing it.
    I agree with your sentiments that it seems to be a great way to bring your family together, even if just for a few days, each year.
    Hope the kimchi is delicious =)

  6. We’ve had vegan kimchi (without the seafood) and LOVED it! Definitely something to be proud of! It’s our favorite way to eat cabbage. 🙂

  7. Yum! I loooooove Korean food, but Kimchi is kind of hard for me to do unless it’s without seafood. But I do love spicy pickled veggies!

  8. Angie Away says:

    Fascinating process – I had no idea!

  9. Ayngelina says:

    i am so jealous. I would love to do this!

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