My fondest memory of Kimjang goes back to an earlier time in the States when our family (Appa, Umma, Unni, and I) immigrated in 1998, moving into a tiny two-bedroom apartment in suburb Philadelphia.
Even in our tiny apartment, our parents bought a giant kimchi fridge that lived in between the living room and kitchen, and they were determined to make their own kimchi after tasting a store-bought kimchi.
I remember once or twice a year, we would receive a big heavy box from Korea and our family would open them together in excitement like opening Christmas gifts. Inside, there were bags of gochugaru, fresh squeezed toasted sesame oil and seeds, dried anchovies and other dried goods that our grandparents planted, harvested and milled in local bang-at-gan (gristmill) before carefully wrapping them in many layers of plastic bags to ensure safe travel to America.
Around Thanksgiving time when napa cabbages are at their peak, Umma and Appa would drive 45 minutes to the closest Korean grocery (before H-Mart) and buy cases of cabbage, bulbs of garlic that we peeled a few days before Kimjang (our parents insisted peeling fresh garlic for best flavor), muu radishes and other aromatics for kimchi making.
Once home, Umma and Appa cut cabbages into quarters, lightly dip them in salt water and put extra sea salt in each layer of cabbage ends for even salting, and they’d go to sleep after wee hours. Appa would wake up early in the morning to flip, rinse and drain the cabbage before they head out to work. After they got back, our family would gather and it was a team effort from there. We each had duties. Appa usually does heavy work, cutting muu radish into small blocks and passing it to my sister and I, and we would cautiously slice them through mandolin into thick julienne. Umma would be in charge of making the marinade. Making Pul (rice slurry) and seasoning with grandpa’s precious gochugaru, fish sauce, pureed onions and rest of ingredients.
Best part of Kimjang making was when Umma ripped tender, yellow center of cabbage then smeared a little bit of marinade, feeding us with her bright pink gloves on to our mouth for the final taste. Of course, after all of the kimchi were made, we feasted on boiled pork belly (bo ssäm) and went to sleep with a full belly.
I'm just coming to the realization that our parents never missed a year of Kimjang making, even in their hardest time adjusting to life in America. Whenever my sister and I told our parents it's too much of work and we should just buy kimchi, for our parents it was more than just making staple banchan for our table and to have delicious kimchi, it was their act of love and their longing for the rest of the family back in Korea. A deep connection and missing I didn't quite understand when I was young.
Although I've been cooking professionally for the past 15 years, I still can't make as delicious kimchi as my Umma, and to this day she would always pack me a container or two of kimchi to take back to New York.
Chef Eunjo Park resides in New York, NY. She formerly was the executive chef at Momofuku's Kāwi. She was named a Best New Chef by Food & Wine in 2020.