Kimjang in North Korea

From Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, by Suki Kim (Crown, 2014), Kindle pp. 230-232:

IN THE SECOND WEEK OF NOVEMBER, SACKS AND SACKS OF garlic and cabbages were delivered on a truck at lunchtime, and several classes were called outside to unload them. They brought the garlic into the cafeteria, and for two consecutive days students and faculty spent more than an hour peeling them. That was how I learned that this was the week of kimjang.

In both North and South Korea, in the late fall, most families make enough kimchi to last through the winter. This tradition originated more than a thousand years ago, when vegetables were not readily available year round. When I was a child, the kimjang season was always festive. The women in my neighborhood got busy suddenly, buying the ingredients—cabbage, radishes, chili peppers, scallions, garlic, ginger, marinated baby shrimps, and anchovies. Then they gathered together to wash the cabbages and radishes, salt them, and make barrels and barrels of kimchi. It was a time of laughter, gossip, and good feelings all around. I would hover around my mother, waiting for a bite of freshly made kimchi dripping chili liquid. That piercing taste of crispy cabbage and raw seasoning was etched in my memory as the first sign of winter. The finished kimchi would be stored in earthenware pots and kept outside to ferment slowly. The increasingly pungent-tasting kimchi kept us strong through the snowy nights of the long, hard Korean winter.

I had not thought about kimjang in a long time. When we moved to America, my mother worked seven days a week and made kimchi less and less, so we got by on the store-bought kind. Besides, with most vegetables available fresh year round, there was no reason to make so much kimchi at once, never mind the fact that we had no garden or balcony to put out the pots. Yet, there I was in Pyongyang, peeling garlic for kimjang with hundreds of young North Korean men who rolled up their sleeves and obliged without hesitation, cheerfully sharing their memories of kimjang at their own houses.

One said he always helped his mother by carrying buckets of water up the stairs: “It takes a lot of water to wash one hundred fifty kilos of cabbage.” That suggested there was no fresh water at his house, despite the fact that his family was part of the elite. Another chimed in that his family was small, just he and his parents, so they only needed eighty kilos. Then they asked me how many kilos my government delivered to my house for kimjang. I could not bring myself to tell them that kimjang was a disappearing tradition for the modern generation, and that the city of New York did not distribute a ration of cabbages to each household, so I just said that my mother no longer did kimjang. They seemed confused and asked how my family then obtained kimchi during the winter. I explained that America was big and the weather varied from region to region, and that all kinds of foods were available during the winter because we traded with many other countries. I used their country’s trade with China as an example, which helped them to understand.

I confessed that I too was confused, about their way of doing kimjang. What about peppers and radishes and scallions, since each family, presumably, had its own unique recipe, with slightly different ingredients? A student explained that the rations varied. This year, for example, the harvest had been bad and there was not enough cabbage for families, so some people bought whatever extra was necessary. This was the second time a student had admitted to a lack of anything.

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Filed under economics, education, food, Korea, labor

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