Around 10 o'clock last Monday morning I was frantically calling my mom in Korea to inquire about a questionable radish I had just cut into. She unfortunately didn't pick up and I was left to determine the fate of said radish and more importantly my kim chi on my own. After 32 years of being an avid consumer and often harsh critic, I finally decided to become the maker of my own kim chi. For many generations of Korean women ahead of me, learning to make kim chi was a rite of passage that I had the luxury / tragedy of avoiding until now. Wherever I've lived, kim chi has always been readily available thanks either to my mom's hard work or to the growing number of Korean grocery stores across America. Then we moved to Kenya and while more Asian groceries are available here than I ever imagined, it often comes with a hefty price. The Korean grocery store down the street from us sells one fourth of a cabbage for close to $4-5!! For someone who can eat kim chi by the bucket loads, this is not ok.
I suppose like any good Korean daughter, I have always had a great respect for kim chi making and always had an interest in learning to make it on my own. But there was also a part of me that always regarded it with deep trepidation. I knew from watching my mother making countless batches growing up that kim chi was labor intensive and to make good kim chi seemed like an almost mystical skill. As familiar as it was, in some ways kim chi seemed more mysterious to me than yeast. Compounded by the legacy of my mother whose kim chi was famously delicious, I was always afraid that I'd find that I didn't measure up.
But living on a budget and having enough free time to boot, made me decide that it was time... especially when I saw that the produce market had just stocked up on the most gorgeous napa cabbage I had ever seen. I called my mom to review her recipe and on the next morning I don't even remember if I changed out of my pajamas before strapping on my apron and getting to work. I quickly fell into a groove and felt my confidence building until I cut into my last radish and discovered that it had a ring of grayish stripes along it's cross section. When my mother didn't pick up her phone, I considered the radish carefully with mild panic. After some deliberation, I decided not to risk it and threw it out. Later on it turns out that I made the right decision as it was a sign that the radish was too old.
I went ahead with the rest of the kim chi making and finally placed four pogis neatly into a pink tupperware for storage. Pink because it would hide the red kim chi stains that seem to permeate into any kind of plastic. For the following week, T and I tried to sample the kim chi as sparingly as possible, enjoying its continuously changing flavor through the aging process, all the while making sure that there was enough to make it to our favorite stages. While the kim chi showed great promise, I was still hesitant to come to a verdict on its success. Then, a couple days ago, it hit what I believe to be that sweet spot between freshness and ripe maturity. Feeling impossibly triumphant, I eagerly called home to share the good news that I had not disgraced the family and could bear the torch of skilled kim chi making on to the next generation.