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[ICONIC FOOD] Kimjang remains hot topic: Kimchi-making culture is alive and well despite the rise of ready-made product

Nov 26,2018
Freshly-made kimchi is put together on a plate. When making kimchi, put enough marinade on each layer of cabbage so that it is well seasoned. While more people are choosing prepared kimchi, many still enjoy making their own, especially in November. [SHUTTERSTOCK]
Top: World-record kimchi making with about 3,000 people gathered on Nov. 4 at Seoul Plaza, central Seoul. Above: Monk Jeongkwan holds up kimchi she makes with visitors on Saturday at Cheonjinam temple in South Jeolla. [NEWS1, LEE SUN-MIN]
Most Koreans say “no” when they are asked whether they make their own kimchi at home, although most say “yes” when asked whether they eat it everyday. Some even say they can’t live without eating it at least once a day, but most of the time they still don’t know how to make it.

Right now is the season to make kimchi for the following year, but individuals aren’t out buying the ingredients needed to make kimchi. Yet, the sales of packaged kimchi at supermarkets have been steadily increasing over the past couple of years.

Kimchi-making culture has been replaced with people gathering to talk about where to go to get quality kimchi that tastes like it’s been homemade. This comes as more people are interested in buying small portions each time they want to eat some instead of taking the time to make a large batch and storing it in their homes to be used throughout the year. The market for the commercialized, packaged kimchi sold at supermarkets is expected to reach 333.8 billion won ($294.4 million) this year, according to the JoongAng Ilbo. That is up from 269.9 billion won in 2015.

The talk about where to go to buy quality dried pepper or garlic or what recipes to follow has vanished from conversations. Now people talk about different kimchi brands they have tried and what they taste like, and that often results in exchanging numbers of the store that sell tasty kimchi.

While the more affordable option is to buy bulk-made kimchi from one of the market leaders - such as Daesang or CJ Cheiljedang - some are choosing other options. Among many kimchi masters who sell their product through social media accounts, Park Kwang-hee of PKH Food, who uses the title “Art of Kimchi Mama,” is getting the most attention. Alongside making the ordinary baechu kimchi, made with cabbage, or ggakdugi, made with white radish, she has used a variety of vegetables available in Pyeongchang, Gangwon, where she lives, including dandelion. She has studied and researched different types of kimchi for decades. She said thinking outside the box to make kimchi with items that people don’t commonly recognize as main kimchi ingredients sells well. Some of the modern Korean restaurants, including the recently opened Myomi, serve Park’s kimchi as banchan, a side dish that commonly comes with rice and soup. With more and more locals buying her kimchi, her packages have become a gift to bring when people go overseas. She has started to export her kimchi to Europe.

As kimjang, the kimchi making culture registered with Unesco since 2013, is now endangered, many cultural institutions are rolling up their sleeves to keep the tradition alive. At the the fifth annual Seoul Kimchi Festival earlier this month, over 3,000 gathered to making kimchi together, aiming to break the Guinness Book of World Records. The previous record for the number of people making kimchi together was 2,635. Schools and regional governments hold smaller events to draw locals in the neighborhood so they can better understand kimjang. People can just come and go whenever they want, without being at the kimjang event from the very start to the end.

What makes kimchi making more fun for everybody is that they get to eat some steamed pork. Since eating the raw cabbage covered with spicy marinade alone isn’t an easy thing, the combination has become a tradition \. It has become one of the November delights for Koreans.

One can make kimchi anytime of the year as long as cabbage and other ingredients are available, but traditionally it was done in late November when the ingredients were at their best. Since people wanted to produce kimchi in bulk when all the ingredients were at their peak, families and neighbors would get together and work for days to make enough to store for the following year. They often made seasonal kimchi, like dongchimi, white radish kimchi eaten during the winter, and yeolmu kimchi, intended for summer consumption, so that they might continue to eat kimchi made in November through the following fall.

While it is important to get the spicy sauce applied to each layer of cabbage when making kimchi, the style is a little different when it comes to kimchi made for monks living at temples. Jeongkwan Sunim, a Korean monk who was featured in Netflix’s documentary series “Chef’s Table,” stressed never to put too much marinade on each layer. She said the taste gets too strong if too much marinade is applied, noting that temple food is generally milder than the food people ordinarily eat. She also adds ground tomatoes and red peppers to add more flavors and adds seaweed into the mix to bring out more flavor. Each household and each kimchi master has their own recipes, and the list of ingredients is often updated.

BY LEE SUN-MIN [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]