Gimjang: A time to make kimchi

Sometime in November, or maybe early December, depending on the temperatures, Korean families will set aside a weekend for gimjang (김장), the annual kimchi-making. There are so many kinds of kimchi that you can make each season, but gimjang is special. It’s the time of year when families make the beloved and versatile pogi kimchi (포기김치) to be eaten year-round. Gimjang takes place after Chuseok (추석, the fall harvest holiday) and before the winter frost sets in. It’s a group affair—everyone pitches in, and these days more men are helping out, too. Recently, one of Seoyoung’s friends invited us out to her family’s gimjang at the end of November deep in the mountains of North Chungcheong Province.

“My brothers and I go home every year to help our mom with gimjang,” Eugene explains at the train station. Her parents moved from the city out to the countryside a few years ago, following a return-to-the-land trend called guinong (귀농). “It’s a lot of work, though,” she adds, looking concerned. “You know we make about 150 pogi (포기, heads of cabbage).” Just to put that in context, for an extended family of eight, Seoyoung’s mom usually made around 70 pogi.

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We arrive at the farm late at night and wake up early the next morning to a landscape muffled in mist. The air is just cold enough to keep you awake. Eugene’s mother had already begun the first steps the night before, cutting and brining the cabbages in 40 kilos of salt.

 

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You have to wash the brined cabbages three times to remove any last bits of dirt or bugs

 

Then it's time to drain the washed cabbages.
Then it’s time to drain the washed cabbages.
We set up the operation on a long trestle table in the yard.
We set up the operation on a long trestle table in the yard.

 

You spread the sok on each leaf, making sure to reach the base, not putting too much or too little. After a while, you fall into a sort of rhythmic mindlessness.
You spread the sok on each leaf, making sure to reach the base, not putting too much or too little. After a while, you fall into a sort of rhythmic mindlessness.

 

To finish each piece, you take the outer leaf and wrap it around, making a nice little package of flavor.
To finish each piece, you take the outer leaf and wrap it around, making a nice little package of flavor.

 

After packing a container full of kimchi, place two leaves on top as a protection against the air.
After packing a container full of kimchi, place two leaves on top as a protection against the air.

 

We left the containers of kimchi out overnight to initiate fermentation before putting them into the kimchi refrigerators.
We left the containers of kimchi out overnight to initiate fermentation before putting them into the kimchi refrigerators.

After packing up the last of the cabbages several hours later, it was time for a nap. A year’s worth of kimchi is hard work.

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