I was such an American kid, growing up snacking on Pop Tarts, Kix, and Cheese Doodles. I couldn’t be less Korean. I refused to slap the label of “Asian” on myself and demanded to be called American.
My identity somehow began to change in college as I began to accept the cultural shadow that I had ignored. To start the “Seoul” searching, I thought I ought to try the food. Why not start with the food that is practically synonymous with Korea: kimchi.
My first taste of the spicy pickled cabbage happened as a junior in college. I picked a container up at the farmer’s market I frequented. A Korean person sold it to me; it had to be decent. I brought back a container home to my roommate, Shaun. His (incredibly sweet) grandmother happened to be visiting, so we gave it a go together. Even though Shaun’s quite the foodie, he wasn’t impressed. My try was similar. Let’s just say it was not love at first taste. It’s smelly, it’s sour, it’s strong. Surprisingly, his grandmother chomped down and enjoyed it.
Kimchi was an acquired taste for me. There is no standard recipe and there is so much variety that will affect the taste (e.g., length of time fermenting), so each batch that you taste will vary. I obviously have learned to love and cherish kimchi, but not to the point of enthusiasm as Koreans do. Alas, I still crave it from time to time, but I’m OK going a day without the stuff. I don’t think Koreans would be happy going a meal without it!
I had a failed attempt at kimchi back in the states and made some delicious cucumber kimchi with Cobi and Kip, but I recently had a chance to learn the ropes from my birth mother.
June has been a generous month with holidays, school trips, good weather, and taking it easy in general. June 6th was Korean Independence Day, so most people were granted the day off. I decided to spend the day at with my birth parents in Jeonju.
During my little jaunt, I was able to aid my mother in making a gigantic batch of summer kimchi. This kind uses various fresh kinds of lettuce instead of cabbage. No fermentation is required; once it’s mixed together, it’s ready for munching.
I helped cut up the scallions and carrots. My cutting techniques aren’t nearly as perfected as Omma’s, but it’s a work in progress. I won’t go into every detail of making the kimchi, but let me say that it requires a lot of time, effort, salt, patience, and gochujang (red pepper paste). Omma hovered over the gigantic bowls of green leaves and fire red sauce, combining them with her bare hands, like a bad ass.
She complained that the kimchi was not delicious, but I found I delightful. It also helps that I saw it come to fruition with my own eyes and my birth mother’s elbow grease was put into it. She gave me a big bag to bring home as well as other goodies like bamboo root and dried squid.
I am grateful to have had this unique cultural experience. There’s always something about mom’s cooking…
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