A Beginner’s Guide to Making Kimchi

She drives you to Busan Market in Oakland’s modest Koreatown. For your whole life, you have been a passenger on Grandma’s pilgrimages for VHS tapes of Korean soap operas and metal tubs of toasted sesame oil. If you behave like a good girl, she will buy you a pack of strawberry cream Yan Yan sticks. Even if you’re naughty, you know that Grandma will always tend to your whiny, grumbling stomach. Most trips to Koreatown end with a happy meal from the McDonald’s on 45th street.

The Napa cabbage is kept in the back of the store by the big fish tanks with the gushing pipes and clouded glass. You press your face against the cool pane, staring at the condemned crabs until Grandma beckons you to her side. She picks up an oval-shaped cabbage and turns it in her hands, her many gold bracelets clacking together. She slowly takes in her specimen, inspecting for minor defects, shades of yellow-green, the firmness of leaves. You point at one and ask if it looks okay. She shakes her head, scoffing “no good!” before she returns her attention back to the pile. Eventually, suitable heads are identified and she pats your hand as you push the shopping cart onwards.

Growing up, you don’t like kimchi. You won’t until long after your palate matures with adolescence. 

You will come to love it for all the contradictions you once misunderstood as unpalatable. The cocktail of fish sauce and garlic and scallions and gochugaru is undeniably pungent, a stiff middle finger to the logics of smallness that American culture instills in its immigrants. But it is also delicate, both in process and nuance of time-dependent flavors. 

You begin by peeling the leaves off one by one. You wash and coat each wrinkly piece in salt. After a few hours, the fibrous tissue softens and the cabbage is ready for seasoning. Grandma pulls on her long rubber gloves and holds her cupped hands out over the cabbage. You slowly pour the ingredients into her ready palms. In her concentration, she mutters, “More, more…” and then abruptly, “Stop that’s enough!” with such force that you’d think an extra drop would break the entire spell. The once white and green cabbage now radiates a powerful red. The leaves are placed in a large glass jar. There is nothing more to do but wait.

You will put off writing this story every day of your life, like you put off calling her. You know a five-minute call would mean so much to her slow lonesome days. But more often than you care to admit, dread stops you from tapping the one Korean name in your phone. 

When you graduate from college, she will fly 3,000 miles from Los Angeles to Connecticut to watch you walk across the stage. After the ceremony, when the family is gathered on the big lawn, she will start crying, quietly take your hand and utter, “I’m so proud of you.” She will cry even more when your Korean professor stops by to tell her how well you did in the Introduction to Korean course. 

Before she leaves for the airport, she will hand you a silver envelope containing a Hallmark card, emblazoned with a glittering cartoon blonde girl waving a diploma. Inside, a long message written in her native alphabet. You’ll realize that in all your life, you’ve never seen her write, only knit and clean and cook and make kimchi.

Needless to say, with your toddler-level grasp of the family language, the long message will be indecipherable. You will stare blankly into the symbols and think about her interiority, her hopes, her aspirations. All separated by a chasm of language. You swear to yourself that you will only read it when you can do so without the help of Google Translate. The card will rest in a drawer for years. 

On a random weekday when you’re at work, you get a call from 할모니 letting you know that the kimchi she prepared when she visited a few weeks prior is ready. “You have to eat it now,” she says. “It’s perfect time.” 

You obediently drive to your parents’ house and haul the glass jar out of the garage. You pull a soggy leaf out, cut it up with kitchen scissors, and place a piece in your mouth. A sharp acidity pulses across your tongue, followed by warming heat. Then, the perfection that warranted an urgent call from Los Angeles in the middle of the day. A popping sensation, like Coca-Cola bubbles, from the fermented gas lodged in the patient cabbage. 

You know how special this exact moment is. In the lifespan of this kimchi, this is the golden age. A few weeks ago it was fresh and in a few weeks it will turn sour, but for now it is a masterpiece. 

You remind yourself to savor this time. You urge yourself not to let the kimchi go unappreciated. But the days will pass by more quickly than your Westernized appetite. The kimchi prepared by her gloved hands will overripen and your stomach will churn with regret over the time you so brazenly wasted.

For now, though, you cut up and eat a few more pieces of just-right kimchi before fastening the lid back on the jar. Once it is placed back in the garage, you leave a voicemail for Grandma. 

“You were right. It was perfect time. I love you. Sahranghaeyo.”

Olivia Won

Olivia Won is a writer, producer, and plant-tender living in her hometown of Oakland, California. She currently works with KQED Food, where she writes about Bay Area food culture and produces Check, Please! Bay Area.