And right under that, under the wall phone and behind the chair that had been, by hallowed custom, my seat at all those kimchi-laden meals for nearly two decades?
An empty plastic tub of store-bought kimchi.
But, hey, I saw nothing.
Already laid out on the table that day were four rinsed heads of Asian cabbage—Korean, not Chinese, my mother insisted. "They're just different," she said. After all, for many, kimchi defines Koreanness more than any passport ever could.
Actually, I pointed out, they were napa.
Close enough, she retorted.
Next to them were a couple of large Chinese—I mean Korean—radishes. Bowls of red pepper flakes (that critical contribution of 16th-century Portuguese traders), kosher salt, ginger, garlic, a jar of tiny wild salted shrimp, several bunches of scallions…and a bottle of suspiciously non-Korean fish sauce.
"Vietnamese," my mother confessed, before swiftly moving on.
Mom, I should probably mention, is from Pyongyang by way of Harbin, China, by way of St. Louis, Missouri. She moved to St. Louis at age 15 to attend Washington University. And she didn't learn how to make kimchi at her own mother's knee: Her mother ran an illegal gambling den in Harbin, and the household chores were handled by the men who were working off the money they owed her. Mom's recipes are a hodgepodge of the methods she picked up from them and from various adopted halmonies (grandmothers) in the U.S.
As mom and I rolled up our sleeves, she reminded me of the first rule of kimchi-making: Put on rubber gloves before handling the eye-searing mixture. Unfortunately, the gloves in my mother's kitchen were sized for tiny Asian-woman hands, and my permanently split knuckle burst through two pairs before I settled on a salvaged set of ripped latex.
Then came the actual kimchi making: brining and wilting the crinkly cabbage leaves until they turned wet and floppy; slathering each leaf with the pepper paste by hand, and feeling the hot-cool red mud ooze through my fingers; rolling up the leaves and sliding them into the jars; then pressing them down to get the bubbles out (that last step is to prevent a burst of spicy kimchi juice from exploding into your face when you open up the jar the first time after it ferments). These, I realized, were the things my mother had spent seemingly every summer Sunday afternoon doing while my friends and brother and I devised ever-more-complicated ways to accidentally almost gouge each other's eyes out in the backyard (sticks, bow and arrows, rusty-fencing saber, lawn darts, improvised Boba Fett—style wrist-mounted bottle-rocket launchers…).
About half an hour later, we'd filled three jars of kimchi, we reeked of garlic, and my mother was telling her decades-old story about how a Korean family two towns over had once had the cops called on them because their neighbors mistook the kimchi jars they'd buried in the backyard for terrorist bombs. Time to go home.
I brought the kimchi I'd made back to New York and let it ferment for a couple of days in the fridge before popping it open and trying some.
But it wasn't as good as my mom's.
Pogi kimchi is a type of cabbage (baechu) kimchi made by quartering the heads and spreading the seasoning onto the layers before restacking them and folding them into the jar, as opposed to mak kimchi, in which you chop the leaves up into little pieces and mix with the seasoning.
Makes about 16 cups (1 gallon)
Active time: 30 min
Total time: 4 days
INGREDIENTS4 heads napa cabbage
1 Korean (daikon) radish (about 2 pounds, 12 ounces)
3 heads of garlic
1 (2-inch) piece ginger (1 3/4 ounces), coarsely chopped
1 1/2 cups hot red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons Korean salted shrimp∗ (preferably wild)
1 tablespoon fish sauce (nuoc mam)
1 1/2 bunches scallions, coarsely chopped on the diagonal
EQUIPMENT:Mandoline; 1 1-gallon sealable glass jar or 4 4-quart jars
- Quarter cabbage. Remove most of the core, leaving just enough to keep the leaves attached to one another.
- Wet the cabbage with water and sprinkle every other leaf layer with kosher salt. Sprinkle salt on top. Let cabbage sit uncovered overnight in a large bowl. Be sure to flip layers of cabbage halfway through the wilting process.
- Cut radish in half. Using a mandoline slicer with a grater attachment, grate radish lengthwise into long strips. Set aside in a large bowl.
- Combine garlic and ginger in a blender. Add red pepper flakes, salted shrimp, and fish sauce. Add about 1/2 cup of water. Purée until smooth, then add to the bowl with grated radish. Add scallions. Using rubber gloves, mix by hand until the radish, pepper mixture, and scallions are thoroughly combined.
- Rinse wilted cabbage five times under running water to remove salt, taking care not to let the leaves separate from the remaining core. Using gloved hands, coat each leaf with the spicy radish-pepper mixture. Cover all the cabbage with the mixture and fold each cabbage quarter in half and place in a sealable glass jar or jars, pressing down to remove any bubbles. Put more spice mixture on top, then put the lid on.
- Let the cabbage ferment 1 one day at room temperature (approximately 78°F) and then 2 days in the refrigerator before eating. (If your house temperature is 70° or lower, leave the kimchi at room temperature for 2 days, then transfer to the fridge for 1 day before eating.)
- When you see bubbles in the jar, it's ready to eat.
- Korean salted shrimp is available in jars in the Asian specialty-food aisle in your supermarket.
- Kimchi keeps, chilled, in an airtight container, up to 1 month (flavor will get stronger).
Brooklyn-based Michael Y. Park has written for The New York Times, the New York Post, and the Toronto Globe and Mail, and he is a regular contributor to Epicurious' Epi-Log blog. Park has feasted at a picnic with the king and queen of Malaysia, and dined on roadside kebabs while disguised as a Hazara tribesman in Afghanistan. He has written numerous articles for Gourmet Live; his most recent was Hunting for Sheep's Butt in Kurdistan.