I visited Korea when I was around four or five. One afternoon, I saw my grandmother sitting on the floor of her small kitchen mixing vegetables in a big, metal bowl. Her hands would move in the same pattern every time. While lifting the layers of cabbage with her left hand, one by one, she’d spread spicy seasoning on each layer with her right hand. Her wrinkled but elegant palms amazed me—she was already in her 60s. I sat down next to her and gazed over the metal bowl, mimicking her hand patterns. After a minute or so, I begged her to let me help her, but that only meant more work for my grandmother after I spilled half of the seasoning on the floor. Despite the incident, I was finally able to eat my first dish of homemade kimchi a few days later. Since then, eating kimchi has been a daily habit for me and my family. Kimchi shaped the small parts of my life and kimchi was how I began my journey into Korean culture.
Before my visit to Korea, kimchi was just like any other food, but now, it’s more than that. Kimchi was the only dish that emotionally helped me keep the fading memories of my great grandparents and even create new memories with my cousins. Kimchi is the kind of food that feels nostalgic, helping me remember old memories like watching my grandma make kimchi. I haven’t visited Korea in almost four years, so eating homemade kimchi helps me remember the days I would play in the small playground next to my grandparent’s house or help my grandfather attach small car parts at his factory. Compared to the other Korean dishes I eat, kimchi simply makes my day, and if it wasn’t for kimchi, I probably wouldn’t have experienced sitting around the table in Korea with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, catching up on nearly everything that happened during the two years we were apart, or trying to persuade my little brother to try kimchi for the first time even though he has a low spice tolerance. Kimchi’s a food that makes me smile and feel at home, but what is kimchi, and why is it the so-called “talk of the town?”
Kimchi, or 김치, is a very common word used in my family. “Do we have kimchi in the fridge?”, “Can you get the kimchi and place it on the table?”, “Do you want some of my homemade kimchi?” It’s probably one of the most-used words in our household, and I’m sure that goes for most Korean families. Kimchi is a famous Korean side dish made with cabbage, seasoned with a variety of spices and fermented vegetables. It’s a delicious and sweet dish but requires patience to wait for the kimchi to ferment, taking up to a month. But after the process, a big glass jar of kimchi can last up to a month. Kimchi has all the flavor and texture you would want, but just in one dish. The many seasonings and spices, like 고춧가루 (gochugaru), added to kimchi brings out the spicy and even bitter taste, but the fresh cabbage, sugar, and corn syrup highlight the sweetness and pleasant taste of kimchi.
In my household, we usually buy a jar of kimchi at my local Korean store, or sometimes, my mom makes kimchi herself. If dinner was Korean food, there had to be kimchi on the table, but even if there was no Korean food, like pasta or steak, there would still be kimchi. If there was no kimchi on the table, my mom would bring it from the fridge, even if we were almost done eating. Even though I never made kimchi alone, I would always help my mom choose the best jar of kimchi from Hmart and carefully bring it home in my hands. Not only is kimchi a central dish in our household, but a central dish in all parts of Korea. Almost all households in Korea will have kimchi in their fridge, and since the 1980s, kimchi refrigerators have become very popular in Korea. They made a fridge. For your kimchi.
When I visit my Korean friends at their house, their mother would place a big dish of homemade kimchi on the table and we would empty the plate even before the main dish came out. Or when I go eat at a Korean restaurant, the 반찬 (banchan) that needs the most refills was kimchi. So, kimchi—it’s everywhere. But what’s the reason? Why is kimchi so popular? Why is it the only banchan you really need? To begin with, kimchi is quite nutritious, and I could even say it’s the healthiest banchan in Korea. Also, a few other popular banchan in Korea are seasoned spinach, fried zucchini, soybean sports, and 파전 (pajeon), simply a vegetable pancake. These side dishes are healthy and don’t have a lot of fatty ingredients. However, these are harder to eat as they’re bland. Kimchi, on the other hand, is healthy with its base food being cabbage, but it’s still sweet and easier to eat with the brimful of spicy spices.
But other than its health factors, kimchi is not just a trend. Kimchi is a Korean traditional food, so it’s a dish that almost every Korean loves. From watching my grandmother make kimchi for my family to placing a big dish of kimchi on the table for Korean Thanksgiving Day, 추석 (Chuseok), kimchi made a big impact on my life, because, without kimchi, I probably wouldn’t have been able to create the special memories with my mom while bringing a jar of kimchi from H Mart, or spilling the seasoning all over the floor. Kimchi impacts people in different ways. Kimchi for someone might have been the first food that they ate when they visited Korea or could have even been a meal that reminds them of their relatives that passed away. Kimchi is a dish that brings my friends and family together, and helps form bonds and special memories with my loved ones, and even throughout the Korean community. Kimchi just calls “home” for me. Kimchi represents the ups and downs of my life and the moments I’ve cherished with my childhood friends, and my relatives I miss so dearly. Kimchi goes with almost every food in Korea, but it also goes with the long history and the formation of Korea, so it’s no doubt that kimchi is the dish that changes everything.
Kimchi is now slowly forming a place in my heart, and even though it’s ironic to say this after 13 years of knowing and eating kimchi, I think I’ve finally found my love and passion for kimchi and Korean culture. The next time my mom prepares dinner, I’ll be the one who takes out the kimchi from the kimchi fridge and finds a container of fresh, homemade kimchi. Kimchi. It’s the best banchan on the planet. What more would you need?