Written and photographed by Madeline Miller
If you run a simple Google search on “kimchi,” you’re likely to find between three and five varieties. If you’re searching in English, especially, you’ll have no idea what the majority of the ingredients are because these vegetable names, translated, all come out pretty much the same: “cabbage,” “lettuce,” “pepper paste.” Korean has many names for ingredients and cooking processes we don’t necessarily distinguish in English. But more than that, there are actually hundreds of kinds of kimchi, most of which the Western world is and has been completely ignorant about for all of history.
Kim Jeong-suk has been in the kimchi-making business for decades. As a child, she dreamed of being a teacher and poet – now, she’s both. She travels abroad at least once a month, doing what she does best: creating new types of kimchi from ingredients available in the host country, teaching local chefs how to prepare traditional kimchi, and judging local cultural competitions. As a cultural ambassador for Korea, she receives government support for her projects and travel, and is apparently loving every minute of it.
Growing up, Suk recalls that the desire to become a teacher was sparked by her father – watching him wake up early to study and prepare for his job as a professor at Chosun University. As an elementary student, she enjoyed helping and encouraging her classmates. During middle school, her dream shifted as a love for literature was born. Reminiscing on her school days, she says “the pictures are so clear” in poetry, bringing emotions she “didn’t know [were] there.” She claims she wanted to be a “poetress” – it sounds more intentional, she insists, than a “sad poet man.”
Looking at Suk, one wonders how a person of such small stature could contain so much personality. She is a fashionista – but her younger sister, Miryeong, says Suk has always been “on point” with her style, yet “never having to try.” Suk says her role model is Cleopatra – she was “intelligent, self-controlled, independent, and wise.” “She was beautiful,” Suk continues, “but always denied it, like me.” Suk also admires her role model for her linguistic ability. “I only know Korean and a little Chinese and English. She knew five languages! She could talk to anyone!” Suk says. As she gets older, Suk complains that language learning has been getting harder, but her sister insists that that is another reason to admire her – for her tenacity for learning.
In addition to publishing several kimchi cookbooks and writing poetry, Suk has “recently” (according to her, but what she really means is in the last 20 years) become interested in art. Some of Suk’s favorite artists include Cézanne, Degas, van Gogh, Picasso, and traditional Korean artist Kim Hongdo (김홍도). She especially appreciates these artist’s still life paintings and makes it a point to visit the best art sites and museums when she travels – places like the British Museum of Art, Napoleon’s grave and War Museum, van Gogh’s grave, and the Louvre rank among her favorites. She insists she “almost always reads,” pointing to a stack of collectable classics in her office bookshelves. Korean translations of David Copperfield, Moby Dick, and Little Women sit next to books on Degas’ impact on the art world. She says that these things inspire her to make an art of her food and drive her to teach about food like the “greats taught art and poetry.”
Suk’s interest in kimchi began as she was a high school student preparing for entrance into university. As stated earlier, she had had the inkling of an idea to become a teacher but didn’t know what specific subject to study. Miryeong shares that Suk always liked food, and she studied Korean cuisine and education. From there, people can specialize in different areas, like health, taste and preparation, or education. Suk studied the nutritional benefits of kimchi, like the fact that fermentation creates a lactic acid that’s said to be anti-aging. She says, “Koreans are thin, healthy, and have good skin because of so much kimchi.” According to her, the average Korean adult living in Korea will eat nearly a pound of kimchi every day, giving them a definite advantage over the average person in the Western world who’s probably never had any kimchi.
After learning of the health benefits of kimchi, Suk realized that the cultural value of kimchi is diminishing. Korean women are entering the workforce more and staying longer than their predecessors, making kimchi preparation less of a priority and one left to the grandmothers. More and more people buy, rather than make, their own kimchi, meaning young people don’t know how to prepare the food they “need more than anything.” Because of this, one of Suk’s major life goals became developing the community’s involvement with Kimchi Town, located in Nam-gu, Gwangju, which she calls the “kimchi mecca of the world.” According to her, Jeollanam-do, and specifically Gwangju, has the perfect particulars for kimchi ingredients and preparation: yearly temperatures allow for the best fermentation and preservation processes; ideal soil for nutrient (and thus flavor) enrichment in radish, cabbage and other vegetables; and the mountains surrounding the area, which protect inhabitants and ingredients alike from the harsher elements. While kimchi has over 1,300 years of history, Suk insists that the “spirit and culture [of kimchi] will never die; the method may change, but kimchi is always alive.”
As she travels, Suk enjoys the struggle of experimenting as often as she would like; when teaching abroad, finding traditional kimchi ingredients is difficult or impossible. She recalls traveling in Vietnam and Mexico specifically, hunting for ingredients just a few days before kimchi workshops, settling for non-traditional ingredients like mango. “The good thing about kimchi,” she says, “[is] you can make it from anything; fruit, vegetables, tofu, anything.” Some of the most common forms of kimchi are the stereotypical Napa cabbage kimchi (배추김치, baechu kimchi), radish kimchi (깍두기, kkakdugi), and easy kimchi (막김치, mak kimchi), which is basically the same as the Napa cabbage kimchi, just integrating a couple of shortcuts to make the process easier.
Aside from being an ambassador abroad, Suk is also a local teacher. She donates her time at Kimchi Town, having officially passed the legal retirement age but wanting to maintain the creative outlet teaching provides her. Usually each year Kimchi Town holds two kimchi festivals on their campus: one in spring and one in fall. This year, though, due to the demand and overcrowding issues in previous years, there are a total of three: in May, September, and November. On a given day at Kimchi Town, there could be as many as 300 visiting students, whether elementary school students or tourists on a cultural expedition.
On September 29, a group of 107 sixth-graders visited Kimchi Town. After a brief tour of the kimchi museum, which explains kimchi’s long history, the students heard from a kimchi expert on Suk’s staff. After the short lecture on preparation and safety, students flooded the “Great Kitchen” – rows of counters and sinks filled with the necessary ingredients for baechu kimchi. Suk whipped around corners to help students tie aprons and chop radishes, hardly saying a word, just putting her hands where there was a need. At first, students seemed a little timid, facing the petite whirlwind, but seeing her intent was to help and not harm, they quickly warmed up to her.
Kimchi Town also regularly hosts government-sponsored groups of Korean language students from nearby universities like Chonnam and Chosun. These students, depending on the class type, can receive a Korean cuisine certificate from the academy. Generally, classes are 12,000 won per student to make one kilo of kimchi, but Suk urges that “any foreigners who want to come can make a group, and I can get the money for them!” As an ambassador, Suk urged me to invite you, the readers of the Gwangju News, to “come make good food for free!” Classes are not limited to kimchi alone. In July, Suk taught a group of Vietnamese students from Chosun about Korean cuisine, including bean sprout soup (콩나물국, kongnamul-guk) and japchae (잡채).
The kimchi-making process is actually fairly easy – Suk stresses that while she teaches, she’s always telling students, “It’s not hard, you just need time. You need to care, and that takes time. But it’s so easy to make!” Typical ingredients are gochu-jang (고추장, red chili paste), one or two base vegetables (cabbage, radish, carrot, cucumber, etc.), and a paste made of blended shrimp or anchovies, green onions, vegetable stock, and sesame seeds. From there, there are many variations. Suk graciously prepared some I could eat (I don’t handle spicy food well) by simply leaving out the gochu-jang. Because there are hundreds of varieties, she indicates that there are types of kimchi for every palate – “sweet, sour, spicy, [or] boring.” Haenam’s kimchi is known for being sweeter, for example, while Gwangju’s is generally spicier. Japanese-style kimchi is freshly made and resembles salad but should be eaten on the same day. Korean kimchi is notorious for its long shelf life, aging like wine – longer is better, some lasting years and “getting healthier [as] it gets older.” Suk says her favorite kimchi is summer radish kimchi (열무김치, yeolmu kimchi), made with whole young radishes, garlic, ginger, and green onions. This type is usually eaten with cold noodles (냉면, naengmyeon) during summer months. But, aside from kimchi, Suk’s favorite food is any kind of Korean pancake (전, jeon) because it’s also easy to create according to taste – “just cut small, small, small, and stir!”
Maddy is a grandma’s lifestyle in a 23-year-old’s body. She has too many hobbies, most prevalent of which are reading, exploring, and chasing the children off her lawn (if only she had one). Her favorite food is anything that isn’t spicy or olives.