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Mondays with Mom

Mondays with Mom: Winter Kimchi

At a certain point in late autumn, on a chilly, and sunny November day, the entire neighborhood's grandmas, moms, and chunyu (young maid) will gather around in one house, or in a two or even three houses for the winter kimchi making. 

In the southern part of Korea, where I grew up, I think about those winter kimchi making fall days as a fun memory. Mostly, I would just watch since I was not big enough to directly join in, but I helped with odds and ends and stuff, carrying a bucket here and there, delivering more hot peppers, or sesame seeds.

Pictured above, Korea in 1947. Photo credit: via Flickr, contributed by dok1. The photo was taken in 1946 -- and so, roughly around the time of this memory from MoM below. We encourage you to view dok1's entire Korean photo set from 1945-1947 here. 

First, a truckful of baechu (napa cabbages), moo (radish), pa (green onion) and fresh gat (mustard green) would be loaded into a house where they were scheduled to make winter kimchi. Then, the prep work would begin: trimming the ends of the cabbages, radishes, green onions – peeling the garlic and ginger roots. The first day was busy doing all the prep work and salting the cabbages with coarse sea salt.

The kimchi making was so busy! I can picture the scene, from a long time ago: some women are busy making kimchi, washing marinated cabbage, cutting and shredding radishes, cutting fresh squids into small pieces; some are chopping pickled shrimps, washing oysters, and chopping up pickled anchovies. And other women are busy making the food that can feed all the workers that day -- they would cut up some fresh cabbages, some daepa (giant green onion), and cook it in a big iron pot with big pieces of meat (beef) in it. I can’t remember everything they put it, but it tasted so good with the freshly made gutjuri (seasoned fresh cabbage), and most importantly haep ssal bap – rice cooked with the newly harvested not long ago from the field.

When all the kimchi stuffing was ready, it was time for filling and smearing the stuffing on the the cabbage leaves. They would stuff as much as one leaf can hold between the leaves, and wrap it up with one long outer leaves. That completed the process of making one whole head of napa kimchi.

My favorite kind was made with fresh oysters; the fall oysters that they were used were very small and dark colored with sweet juice and smelled so fresh and flavorful. I was so happy when the ladies handed me a freshly made yellow kimchi soknip (inner leaves) with bunch of stuffing on it, and when I tasted the fresh oyster inside the stuffing, oh my, it tasted sooo good.

Before making the winter kimchi, one of the preparations was for the men to dig a big hole in the backyard. My grandma’s house had large kimchi jars, as tall as 3-4’ and as wide as your arms can make a full circle. Those jars had already been buried underground, and as the prepared kimchi would be filled to the rim – adding cut radishes at the bottom of the jar and in between the kimchi bundles.

Once the the jars were filled, they would put some extra salted cabbage leaves on top, close the lid, and on the top of the jar, they put some plastic and some dry hay, to prevent from freezing. So, during those freezing winter months, the kimchi stayed very fresh and it had very distinct taste, a lot different than the regular kimchi.

This was when I was growing up in the countryside, when the winters at the time seemed a lot colder than nowadays -- colder and longer, and with less food. Vegetables were not readily available and the winter kimchi that fermented naturally underground, tasting so fresh, like a winter salad.

I don’t think they make that much winter kimchi these days now that there are more fresh vegetables available all year long from the green house and from other countries. And they even invented a kimchi refrigerator that can keep kimchi fresh for months at a time. But I bet it wouldn’t match the taste of the naturally fermented winter kimchi I tasted long ago at my grandma’s house.

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