Gracenotes: Kimchi at the heart of holding Korean culture close

A crunch followed by a burst of spice and tangy juice accompanied every bite of every meal I’ve had in my childhood, whether the meal was spicy, savory or plain. No meal was ever complete without kimchi. 

Kimchi, salted and fermented cabbage and radish, is a staple in Korean cuisine, and I cannot remember a single table without it when I lived in Korea as a child. In name, it’s only a side dish, but deep inside every Korean’s heart, it is one of the core components of a full meal. 

Then came April 2009, when my family and I immigrated to the U.S. Of course, our culture still followed us to California, and living in an Asian community allowed us to stay connected to our heritage, but as the years flowed on in America, so did small parts of my background, kimchi-making included. 

In my native country, kimchi, along with other side dishes, is made and fermented at home by mothers and grandmothers. Although we quickly lost this tradition in America and opted for easy store-bought jars instead, a faint memory of this is lodged in the back of my mind: it is one filled with trills of laughter, smells sharp enough to make you gag and a haphazard but drool-inducing kimchi-making process.

It was just one regular day in the life of a regular Korean-American girl—and yet, it is also a memory significant enough to stand the wear and tear of a lengthy decade of Americanization. 

A few weeks into my new life in Pasadena, I walked into my kitchen, where my parents were leaning over a large, plastic neon bowl with bright pink rubber gloves pulled high over their forearms. Upon peeking into the bowl, a pungent smell hit me, a stench that permeated the walls of the apartment for days. 

“Oh my gosh, is that kimchi?!” I exclaimed in Korean, holding my nose. 

“It’s kimchi,” my parents said. “Come try mixing it.”

I refused to touch the slimy cabbage slathered with sauce. Never had I helped make kimchi, and while moving to the U.S. meant a new start, it didn’t apply to making kimchi. 

“You’re going to have to make kimchi some day,” they said. They were wrong. That day would be the only time we made kimchi in America. 

My parents dug their hands into the bowl and brought out a limp chunk of cabbage slathered with a sauce made of Korean chili flakes, garlic, water and other ingredients I cannot possibly remember. They rubbed salt over the bright red mess and gingerly placed the now-salted blob into a container, unintentionally spraying speckles of scarlet sauce across the white tiles. 

While I was familiar with the process from watching my grandmother make kimchi back in Korea, it was the first time I had seen it being made in America—and it would be the only time. 

Don’t get me wrong; we still buy kimchi from our local Korean market and eat it regularly with meals. However, the loss of the kimchi-making tradition signaled the diminishing importance of my culture to me. 

Kimchi is like my Korean identity—a side dish, and yet, a crucial part of the entire meal that one possibly cannot forget. It is a splash of color (literally) on a bland, dull base of rice, an exciting adventure that I experience quite frequently. 

I sometimes forget what a difference kimchi makes in a meal and only notice my vague, confused feeling when it is missing. It is the same with my Korean identity, a small part of me hidden away in the background, but still me. 

Unfortunately, the longer I live in America, the more the memory of that day, and consequently, my Korean identity, fades away. I know that making kimchi is a long and arduous process that my family and I do not have the time for, but reclaiming and accepting my Korean identity is something that I can do on my own. 

Living in America, I feel like my Korean culture and identity have been hidden away, but now I realize that they are not elements I want to let go of. 

I don’t know if I’ll be able to fully embrace or balance both American and Korean cultures, but in due time, I’m sure that I’ll be tasting the familiar, zesty uniqueness in my life and complete the full picture once again.