Trucks loaded with piles of napa cabbages carry the season’s fresh produce to grocery stores. Makers of red rubber gloves go all out to ensure sufficient supply, while the nation’s weather agency releases a special forecast, predicting the ideal dates for kimchi-making.
All for the love of Korea’s national side dish.
From mid-November till early December, before the cold fully sets in, Koreans go through an annual ritual of “gimjang,” in which they make large quantities of the spicy, fermented cabbage dish to last through the winter.
Recently added to UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage, the custom is peculiar in more than one aspect.
Above all, gimjang typically involves multiple families, friends or even an entire neighborhood. They buy cabbages, red pepper powder and other ingredients in bulk, make kimchi together and share it. One can say that economies of scale apply here, but this communal aspect of kimchi-making is primarily what makes kimchi much more than a dish. It is a cultural heritage and identity that has been passed down through generations, with its recipes, special ingredients and seasoning varying to families, communities and regions.
At its most basic, kimchi is a dish of pickled cabbage, seasoned with lots of garlic, ginger and red chili powder. From this simple concoction comes a product that has a fresh, crisp and intriguingly carbonated taste when younger, becoming sourer and more pungent as it ages.
Although kimchi today enjoys an elevated profile as a “superfood” after a series of studies showed its health benefits, its consumption in Korea is shrinking.
Back in the 1970s, before Western cuisine landed on the Korean dinner table, Koreans used to consume more than 400 grams of kimchi a day, spread out evenly across three meals. Now, the figure is down to just 60 grams, according to 2012 data.
The rise of single-person households and nuclear families is another factor. As younger generations see gimjang as something of a hassle, small packages of factory-made kimchi — be it fresh or ripe — have become readily available at stores.
On the global culinary scene, however, kimchi is getting a gourmet makeover, as international chefs reinvent the traditional Korean dish for burgers, ravioli or fries.
This week, in celebration of the gimjang season, we look into the world of kimchi and what this beloved pickle means for Koreans.