Something Like Kimchi

How making kimchi tided me over the coldest winter

Freshly pickled 포기김치, Oct 2020

The art of making kimchi, for me, will always be associated with my first winter in Osaka. I wrote in my last newsletter about October 1st marking my two-year anniversary in Toji; it was also on October 1st, sixteen years ago, that I arrived in Osaka to start graduate school.

Living in Japan, I thought, would not be too difficult. I was a fairly adventurous kid: by then I’d lived on my own in Hong Kong and the US, backpacked twice around China, once solo, and visited Japan countless times. My Japanese was good. And I did it all on my own dime—scholarships, grants, work. I was adulting.

Or so I thought. My first few months in Japan were miserable: I couldn’t find housing (many private landlords at the time did not want to rent to foreign students), I was about to break up with my thesis advisor (he wanted to delete the ‘Sino’ from my thesis proposal on Sino-Japanese history), and although I thought I understood Japanese politeness, living with it everywhere, every day felt like getting bubble-wrapped in passive-aggressiveness.

And then winter struck. I was looking forward to my first real winter, with snow, unlike California. I did not realise how primitive Japan, especially rural Japan, can get in winter. I may have been in Osaka—but I was living in its northern-most suburbs, at the foot of the mountains that part Osaka from Kyoto, the nearest train station almost thirty minutes away by foot. Here is the truth no one will tell you about Japan: rural Japan, in winter, is a third-world country. There is no central heating (fire hazard and energy conservation), only spot heating. The only way to get warm is huddling next to a space heater, under the kotatsu (a low table with a heated lamp underneath), on the toilet (heated toilet seats FTW!), or in bed with an electric blanket. Every other spot in my apartment was frigid.

(There is the heater function on the air-conditioner, if your apartment has one, but you know what happens when you use the A/C to heat up a room. Everything shrivels up like a prune, including you, and your electricity bill goes crazy.)

Sometime in the middle of trying to survive winter, I met S, a PhD student from Seoul, who was friends with my closest friend then, a Belgian Korean. S was surprised how much I knew about Korean food—I love to cook, and by then was attracting a steady stream of hungry classmates to my kitchen. I told her I’d always wanted to learn how to make kimchi—this was wayyy before Maangchi (and before Youtube even existed!). All I could find was an online text-based recipe using 40 heads of cabbage which seemed, ahem, challenging for a first-timer.

“Sure,” she said. “I’ll teach you.”

A few days later, we met at the supermarket, then returned to my apartment with bags of cabbages, radishes, spring onions and other ingredients. That night, she taught me how to brine cabbages. I watched in wonder as water overflowed from brining containers, cabbages oozing out water continually as they shrank to almost half their size. The next morning, I woke up to a flooded kitchen. S laughed when she arrived. That was when I learnt the Japanese hakusai, and Japanese vegetables in general, have a higher water content than their Korean cousins.

We spent the rest of the day julienning radishes, then preparing the fermentation mix. Although Osaka, at the time, had the largest Korean community outside of South Korea, Tsuruhashi was more than an hour away by train, in the south. We improvised everything. Spanish anchovy paste for fermented salted shrimp, Thai fish sauce instead of Korean fish sauce, sugar and honey instead of apple/pear. I watched as S tested, added, and improvised, until the taste was “something like kimchi”.

“This is good.” She rolled some of the marinated radish strips in a cabbage leaf, then fed me by hand. It was sharp, salty and spicy—and absolutely delicious.

Later, I learnt this is how mothers feed their loved ones. It is how daughters remember the taste of their mothers’ kimchi. With one simple gesture, S was not just teaching me taste, she was welcoming me to her family.

With S julienning radishes in my kitchen, Winter 2004/5

I lost touch with S after leaving Osaka. One day, her e-mail address just stopped working. I later found out her marriage had broken down and she had returned to Seoul, leaving her young daughter with her husband in Osaka. Only then did I realise—back then I thought she was helping me with my loneliness, but in some small way, I must have been helping her with hers too.

Wei Ting’s Very Basic Kimchi Tips

I’m not going to offer recipes here, there’re tons online. Korean Bapsang’s Traditional Kimchi recipe is a good start, or if you prefer video instruction try Maangchi’s or Chef Paik’s.

What I will share here are some tips, based on mistakes I’ve made over the years. I thought I knew how to make kimchi, after having made it several times with S over two winters. But the first batch of kimchi I made in Singapore after moving home was so bad I threw it out. For the longest time, I just could not replicate the flavour of the kimchi that we had made with almost entirely improvised ingredients on my kitchen floor in Osaka.

  • Taste test everything. I always start with a recipe but ditch it by the end, i.e. I squirt in as much fish sauce/toss in as much salted shrimp/chilli powder until it tastes right

  • Taste test at every step: after brining, after rinsing out the salt, before letting the fermentation mix sit, after letting the fermentation mix sit

  • But I’ve never made kimchi before! What should it taste like? Hmm. Ask a Korean friend or friend’s mom to teach you. Or teach yourself. Try out different kinds of kimchi to figure what kind of taste you like. Pre-fermentation, the marinated kimchi should taste slightly stronger than what you like. The flavour will mellow and grow in complexity as it ages.

  • Adjust for season and environment. In my frigid Osaka kitchen, we let the kimchi sit out for close to a week. When I tried that in tropical Singapore, the kitchen began to stink by Day 3 and the kimchi was uneatable by the end of the week. I now let it sit out for 24 hours max, then in the fridge it goes.

But there’s got to be a secret, somewhere…

That…is true. If you’ve only had store-bought kimchi, let me assure you there is a huge difference between store-bought and homemade kimchi. It’s like moving from white bread to sourdough. Or Heineken to craft beer. Something like that. Some of the best kimchi I’ve had is so intricate and complex it sets off tiny tastebud explosions with every bite. Some use special kinds of fermented or fresh seafood (certain variety of shrimp, oysters, etc), strains of fish sauce, certain seasons of fruit…

I learnt, from a friend’s mom, to use 매실 or plum essence. J’s mom hand-carried, from Seoul to Singapore, an earthern claypot. And when she untied the string and removed the cloth—good god, the kitchen filled with the most heavenly aroma of summer-ripened plums. 매실, I later learnt, is a staple of Jeolla-do cooking, while almost unseen in North Korean food. There is nothing more delicious than beef short ribs marinated with a dash of 매실. I was struck by how across East Asia, plums are fermented and used in cooking in different ways, from 梅干し rice to 酸梅汤. And I discovered that in South Korea, many women ferment their own plum extract to create their own uniquely flavoured kimchi.

My “secret” ingredient…

A week or so ago, I reached in the back of the fridge for my jar of 새우젓 salted shrimp and found it completely iced over. Hmm, how old was this thing? I texted my good friend M.

“Do you think I can use this? I don’t know how old this is.”

“Try it.”

“Tastes great.”

“Hey, if 묵은지 (ripened kimchi) can last for years, why not?”

So…presenting my secret ingredient for this amazing batch of kimchi:

Don’t ask me how many years old this 새우젓 salted shrimp is…