Kimjang -- fiction by Michelle Park
It was almost as if someone always whispered into my ear - it’s kimjang time! I’d always known by instinct, when the smell of the soon to be fermented dish was paved in the red of the finest peppers of Korea. As a five-year-old, I remember halmoni ringing out two big red plastic bowls that soon would fill with more of its color. It was a feisty red, bold like fire.
“What is that?” I’d question my halmoni, doe-eyes staring into the immense bowl. I’d follow her into the cabinets, and she’d take it out, the bowl four times the size of my head.
She’d face me, and smile, “It’s a dara-i, exclusively used for kimjang.”
Patting my head, she’d head towards the kitchen, placing it on the floor. I’d lift my foot, hovering it over the rim of the bowl, and before I stepped into it, halmoni turned towards me noticing my foot, and she whispered, “You know, Jung-ah, there’s a myth saying that if you step into that red bowl, your kimchi will never taste good.”
In fear of that, I jolted away, wincing at the fear of my kimchi tasting duff. She snickered, her face widening with a sly grin, focusing back at adding condiments into the kimchi sauce.
When umma finally deemed that I was ready to help with kimjang, I took the head of baechu into my hands, ready to bleach it. I remember, always telling umma that the wrinkly part of the Korean cabbage looked like our neighbor’s hair.
The neighbor moved into the apartment next door four years ago, and at first, she didn’t have green hair. Her hair was tinted in brown, with hints of gold-like blonde at the tips. A few days later, when she returned home, I saw that the neighbor’s hair was fierce light green, the color radiating like the brightness of the sun. From that moment and onwards, I’d always refer to her as the cabbage lady.
“Umma! It’s the cabbage lady!” I’d shout, whenever I saw her around the neighborhood.
The next year, even when she dyed it black, I had kept calling her the cabbage lady, and by then, “cabbage lady” had become her official nickname for the neighbors in our apartment.
The taste of the sauce before it was embedded into the baechu was always so salty. It was like drinking ocean water. Every year, I’d sit criss-cross beside halmoni, hoping I’d get used to that briny taste.
“Could I taste the sauce please?” I’d plead, pouting in fear that she’d say no.
“Of course. But I’m going to warn you - it’s salty!” She’d reply, gesturing me to hand over a teaspoon.
I’d run across the kitchen, fetch a teaspoon, and smile, “Don’t worry, I’ll get used to it!”
But later on, I’d learn that it was impossible. Year after year, I’d always try the briny sauce, but my taste buds had never adjusted to the strong ocean-like taste.
Even so, after a few days, when the kimchi was starting to become fermented, umma would place it in the center of the table. As we ate, I would forget about the saltiness, and would always find my chopsticks heading towards the kimchi, grasping onto it with much power.
One year, when our relatives came to make kimchi, umma had decided to use what I’d thought was an inflatable swimming pool to place on the floor. It turned out to be a kimjang dedicated mat to prevent the sauce from staining the floor.
Umma had said that when I was a toddler, when halmoni began melding the sauce ingredients and the drilling noise of the blender started echoing through our house, umma would start to iron layers and layers of newspaper until the ash tree tiles were completely cloaked underneath monochromatic hues. She said that afterwards, I’d begin my journey to step over the newspapers, slowly disassembling the perfectly aligned papers.
“Your imo and I don’t want to put up with your little cousins messing around, so we’re trying this out,” she chuckled, motioning towards the kimjang mat.
I take out a red plastic dara-i out of the storage room, placing it on top of the newspapers perfectly positioned. I gather all my ingredients, and I begin to add them.
1 cup of grainy kosher salt
4 tablespoon of grated garlic that makes your mouth smell fetid
4 teaspoon of grated peeled fresh ginger
8 tablespoons of red powdery gochugaru
5 tablespoon of water of the best tasting water, samdasoo
As I swirl them together, I imagine halmoni beside me, guiding me through the steps, in case I miss a step or two. I chuckle at her thought, remembering how she’d make me watch everything she did and fadedly, I hear her nag, “Focus, or else your kimchi’s going to taste bad!”
Michelle Park is a 15 year old, high school freshman currently living in the Philippines. Many of her poems are about nature and her memories from her childhood. She loves to eat food, and during her free time, she likes to play soccer, dance, and listen to music. Her works have been published or are forthcoming in the Heritage Review, Cathartic Literary Magazine, the Rising Phoenix Press, and One Art Poetry.