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August 10, 2016

Making Kimchi: Women's Work

Add Some Spice to Your Life With Kimchi
The year I turned 15, my mother went through an ethnic cooking phase fueled by half a dozen magazine subscriptions and a stack of cookbooks she picked up at a garage sale. 

She developed a habit of reading recipes aloud, but it was clearly for my own elucidation, not my approval, for never once did she ask whether or not I might be interested in trying a particular dish. Instead, in the evenings, I would approach the dinner table with a strong mix of fear and anticipation; I could never be certain what was on the menu.

My mother’s culinary daring kept me on my toes and while I had no way of knowing it then, her adventurous cooking advanced my palate. This is how I developed my deep appreciation for garlicky hummus, towering mountains of tabbouleh, and dense floury dumplings stuffed with succulent pork and greens—commonplace dishes in today’s world, but three decades earlier in the Midwest, they were exotic culinary delights that fueled my imagination.

I was happy to indulge my mother’s hobby until the afternoon she recited the recipe for kimchi. At first, I paid little attention as she read the ingredients—finely shredded cabbage, ginger, garlic, red pepper, water, and salt—all common enough in our kitchen—then, she detailed the long fermentation process, the traditional earthenware pot used for making kimchi—all perfectly acceptable, but, when she shared that the only way to get the true flavor of kimchi was to bury the pot in the backyard, I protested.

I loved cooking, too, but I was at that age where social standing mattered; those precipitous teenage years when a simple ride to school could be a setback. I didn’t want to think about the repercussions—or embarrassment—of having my friends stumble upon a pot with a fermenting brew of vegetables poking from beneath the earth in my mother’s garden.

Years later after my palate matured, I discovered kimchi and now, ironically, there’s always a jar in my refrigerator. Had I taken my mother up on her offer to make kimchi, though we’re not Korean, we would have engaged in a tradition that Korean women have shared for centuries.

Making kimchi was women’s work, a time when women, young and old, would gather to socialize and pay homage to their ancestors and Korean heritage. Known as Kimjang, this event occurred after harvest and had a practical purpose. Large amounts of kimchi could be prepared and set aside for the long winter months and it was a way for mothers to pass on to their daughters the traditions—and secrets—of making kimchi.

The best kimchi was made by old hands—or knowing hands—possessed by women who had been making kimchi for so long that they had wisdom in their hands. These women knew precisely how to mash and massage the vegetables to soften them to the right consistency and could add other ingredients by sense—a pinch of this or that, until the right balance was achieved. These women had gained their knowledge over a lifetime of trial and error and while the ingredients would vary by region, kimchi always had to be the perfect balance of five flavors: sweet, sour, bitter, spicy, and salty.

A women’s work wasn’t done once the kimchi had been made; it needed tending. The traditional vessel used, a permeable earthen pot, allowed air circulation and was small enough to be moved to accommodate changes in weather. During summertime, women would store their pots on their rooftops and in the winter, bury them in the earth to keep them warm. Some women never left them out of their sight and would even sleep with them. In many families, the pots were passed on from mother to daughter, the kimchi reportedly going back decades, possibly even centuries.

According to anthropologists, kimchi dates back to 2030 BC and in 600 AD, archeologists excavated a remote site, uncovering the remains of clay pots used for kimchi, along with cave paintings depicting the process. Food historians report that it wasn’t until 1350—when chilies and red pepper were introduced—that kimchi evolved to what we recognize today.

Kimchi is so important to the Korean identity that there is a Kimchi Foundation, a Kimchi Research Institute, and even a Kimchi Field Museum where they’ve documented 187 historic and current varieties, including those so elaborate they include abalone, oysters, lichen—even whole fish wrapped in cabbage leaves.


While my introduction to kimchi was rocky, I owe my love of ethnic food and adventurous cooking to my mother. The last time we spoke, I told her about the kimchi I was making, but before I could finish, she said, “Hold on a minute. I just came across a recipe; I want to read it to you.”

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