GOESAN, South Korea – The family van was loaded with precious cargo – 11 brown plastic boxes filled with 150 pounds of kimchi that Ha Si-nae, her husband and three daughters made with their own hands.
“We are all ready for this time next year!” said Ms. Ha, 40, looking with satisfaction at the stack of boxes. “Nothing makes a Korean family feel secure like a good stock of kimchi does.”
In Korea, where people like to say they “can’t live without kimchi,” November is kimchi-making season, or “kimjang.” And like the Ha family, many Koreans try to keep the centuries-old tradition alive.
Kimjang was once such a timeless ritual as the changing of the seasons. When the first frost came, families created stocks of kimchi, storing it in large clay pots often buried in the ground. These pots of kimchi supported them through the long winter and lean spring when fresh vegetables were not available.
South Korea and North Korea are so proud of the autumn ritual that they campaigned – separately, but successfully – to include kimjang on UNESCO’s list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. “.
But in the age of bulletproof meal kits and on-demand grocery delivery, the tradition is in decline.
“Whatever they do well, these big companies can’t make kimchi as good as your mother or mother-in-law made,” Ms. Ha said.
Ms. Ha used to get kimchi from her mother, a common practice among many young Koreans living in big cities. But when her mother got too old to cook the dish – a laborious and time-consuming task – Ms. Ha and her husband tried to prepare it on their own, using recipes found on YouTube.
More often than not, they have failed.
Last year, tired of commercial kimchi but unable to make their own from scratch, Ms. Ha’s family began to travel to a rural town to learn.
Goesan, a mountainous county in central South Korea, is famous for its scenic gorges, Zelkova trees, and three foods: corn, chili, and cabbage. The latter two are among the most important ingredients in kimchi.
Han Sook-hee, 59, and other women from White Horse Village, Goesan County, still make kimchi for themselves and their children, who have migrated to the towns. In recent years, women have started to receive requests for kimchi from their children’s neighbors.
Four years ago, a villager made a suggestion: why not run a kimjang workshop to give the aging population of the village extra income during the agricultural off season and to help those who want to learn the art of making wood. kimchi?
The festival was an instant success.
“We provide the ingredients set and ready, and all the participating families have to do is mix them into kimchi,” Ms. Han said. “We are also trying to recreate the happy atmosphere of kimjang.”
In a custom like that of an Amish barn, entire villages turned out during kimjang, helping one family make their own kimchi before moving on to the next. The pigs were slaughtered and the makgeolli – Korean rice wine – was consumed with songs and laughter.
During the kimjang, families cleaned hundreds of cabbage heads and soaked them in large tubs of salt water for a few days, turning them twice a day. They coated each cabbage leaf with a sauce made from chili, garlic, ginger, shallot, radish, fermented fish and other ingredients. The cabbages were then stacked and patted in jars. Lactic fermentation gave the kimchi its unique taste and texture.
After the success of the White Horse Workshop, the Goesan government began to organize a three-day “kimjang festival” last fall.
“The Kimjang Festival will serve as a bridge between urban families who want to make their own kimchi and our farmers who want to sell cabbage and other kimchi ingredients,” said Goesan Mayor Lee Cha-young.
The first festival drew 80,000 people last year, he said. This year, because of the coronavirus, the county hosted a social distancing version inside its stadium.
Shin Tae-sook, 71, joined the festival last year because she said it made the job easier. This year she brought her daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter. Although she used the sauce provided by the county, she added her family touch – a bucket of raw oysters.
“A Korean meal is not complete without kimchi; it embarrasses you when you have a guest and you don’t have kimchi on the table, ”Ms. Shin said. “Kimchi is one dish, but you can make others.”
She listed them: “Kimchi soup, kimchi stew, kimchi pancake, kimchi whatever,” she said. “You can’t talk about Korean cuisine without talking about kimchi.”
Woo Kyong-ho, an organizer of the workshop, said that when he was traveling abroad and had not had kimchi for a few days, he suffered from “kimchi withdrawal symptoms.” Food is so closely associated with Korean identity that when South Korea sent its first astronaut to the International Space Station in 2008, the kimchi was taken on a mission.
When Koreans take group photos, they say “Kimchiiii” instead of “cheese”.
“Kimjang and kimchi have brought together a Korean community,” said Kim Jeong-hee, head of the Jinji Museum, specializing in Korean culinary history.
Korean families do not consume as much kimchi at home as their ancestors. They eat out more often and have a lot of alternatives to choose from. They are also buying more factory-made kimchi, 38% of which is imported from China.
In 2018, four in ten South Korean households said they had never made kimchi or knew how to do it, according to the World Kimchi Institute.
But kimchi is still the food Korean families love to share. Recipes generally vary from village to village and from family to family and are passed down from generation to generation. A request for a second is seen as praise and a source of pride.
Fall foliage was starting to change color in Goesan as the festival began this year. The signs on the side of the road said, “Come to Goesan and make kimchi!” Families arrived with specially designed plastic boxes for kimchi refrigerators, a common appliance in many Korean homes. They paid $ 134 for 44 pounds of cleaned and salted cabbage and 16.5 pounds of kimchi marinade.
Standing around a table, each family began to mingle, all wearing pink rubber elbow gloves, while the village meisters watched and offered advice. Steamed pork and makgeolli were available for free, although singing was banned for coronavirus safety concerns.
Ms. Han said that each village in Goesan has a secret ingredient or two. White Horse, she said proudly, was the extracts of pumpkin and white forsythia. Adding them, she says, makes her kimchi “sweet, spicy and crunchy.”