Kimjang: Korea’s annual celebration of cabbages and community

Kimjang: Korea’s annual celebration of cabbages and community

by Great British Chefs1 November 2023

Read on to find out why kimjang, or the day when families get together to make kimchi, is so important in Korea, and how this celebration is being brought to the UK.

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Kimjang: Korea’s annual celebration of cabbages and community

Read on to find out why kimjang, or the day when families get together to make kimchi, is so important in Korea, and how this celebration is being brought to the UK.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews as well as access to some of Britain’s greatest chefs. Our posts cover everything we are excited about from the latest openings and hottest food trends to brilliant new producers and exclusive chef interviews.

Kimchi has to be Korea’s most iconic food. Bright red from gochugaru (Korean red chilli powder) and funky from plenty of jeotgal (fermented seafood), kimchi is an essential accompaniment to almost every meal in Korea. In fact, 95% of Koreans eat it more than twice a day. It’s no surprise then that Koreans get through a lot of it: before the 1970s, 30% of all farmland in Korea was devoted to kimchi cabbage, the main ingredient of baechu kimchi, the most common type of kimchi. Even today, as diets in Korea have diversified away from traditional staples, Koreans still eat an average of 37kg of kimchi per person per year.

But although consumption of kimchi has stayed high, more and more Koreans are buying kimchi rather than making it at home. This is of course true of many foods, both in Korea and in the UK. However, homemade kimchi holds a deeper cultural significance for Koreans than most foods. Kimjang – kimchi-making day – is perhaps the third most important family get-together in the Korean calendar after Chuseok (Korean harvest festival) and Seollal (Korean New Year). When the Queen visited Korea in 1999, she was taken to visit a temple, attended a banquet – and shown a recreation of kimjang (or ‘gimjang’).

Traditionally carried out by women, kimjang is the name for the day when Korean families make up to a year’s worth of baechu kimchi in one big batch. Extended families or sometimes even whole villages, get together in the autumn once the cabbages are ready and make kimchi together. Ingredients vary widely by region, and no two families’ kimchi recipes are exactly the same. Monasteries prepare vegan kimchi, while in the seafood-rich regions of the southern coast fresh oysters and octopus are popular additions. The broth used to make the seasoning paste is infused with a wide variety of seafood like dried anchovies (myeolchi), dried herrings (kipori), dried baby herrings (seulchi) and dried pollack. Some regions add nuts, black sesame and pine nuts, whilst others add chestnuts and dried red dates.

Modern-day kimjangs come with modern-day conveniences. Families store kimchi in plastic containers in kimchi fridges, rather than storing them in onggi (earthenware pots) underground. Chilli flakes can be bought, rather than ground from whole chillies at home. But there’s no getting around the fact that making bright red kimchi on a huge scale is a delightfully messy business. While in the countryside there’s space to make kimchi outside, in urban areas, families have figured out ways to adapt kimjang to small apartments. Kimjang mats, which look a lot like paddling pools, are used to mix the wilted, brined cabbage into the seasoning paste. Elbow-length pink rubber gloves help stop everyone’s hands from being stained bright red by the chilli powder. Large heavy-duty plastic bags hold the brining cabbages, like oversized bags of goldfish from a funfair.

Making kimchi is undeniably tiring. Each cabbage can weigh 2kg, and each leaf has to be salted and seasoned by hand. The labour also traditionally falls to mothers, who prepare the kimchi on top of their regular work. But kimjang is also a fun and celebratory occasion. Once all the kimchi is finished, it’s traditional to drink makgeolli (sparkling rice wine) together, and eat suyuk (boiled pork) with baechu-geotjeori (fresh kimchi). Kimjang is also how younger generations learn to make kimchi. Kimchi recipes aren’t generally written down, and so kimjang is a time when recipes are passed from one generation to the other. This is yet another reason why preserving kimjang is so important – the get-togethers play a critical role in preserving Korea’s oral history and unrecorded culinary traditions.

Over the past five years or so, public kimjangs have begun to spring up in the UK. Most of these have happened in and around New Malden, which has the largest population of Koreans in Europe. According to the Korean government there are around 45000 Koreans in the UK, but two thirds of them live in London. Without kimjangs, kimchi recipes from the older generation of Koreans in the UK could easily be lost. The Kimjang Project, started by the Korean British Cultural Exchange group, now holds an annual kimjang in New Malden to document regional kimchi traditions from Koreans in the UK, and ensure that they are not forgotten. Meanwhile, Korea Agro-Fisheries & Food Trade Corporation, which is a body of the Korean government, has also organised their own kimjang event to introduce more British people to the idea of making kimchi at home.

This year, Ha Yeon Lee, President of the Kimchi Association of Korea, and an officially designated kimchi master, led the kimchi-making at Let’s Do Kimjang. Her recipe, which used pear, mustard leaf (gat) and water dropwort (minari) as well as radish and cabbage, was taught to a small group of British kimchi fans. The event was perhaps smaller and less messy than your typical kimjang – participants were each given their own individual sets of kimchi ingredients rather than making a batch communally. However, in many ways the ethos was the same: to keep the love of and tradition of making kimchi alive.

Ha Yeon Lee led the kimjang in 2023

Kimchi has become more and more popular in the UK over the last few years. It’s easier than ever to buy Korean ingredients like saeujeot (fermented shrimp) and gochugaru (red chilli powder) as well as actual kimchi from Korea. If you’ve never tried kimchi before, buying some from established Korean brands like Bibigo, Chongga and Jongga is a great way to give it a go. Although once hard to track down, Korean kimchi is now easily available even in small Asian supermarkets. Packaged kimchi is often available in small packets so you can sample a few varieties to see what you like; spiciness and funkiness varies from brand to brand.

As access to kimchi becomes more widespread, hopefully kimjangs will become more popular as well. And if you have a friend who makes good kimchi? Make a batch together – and learn the recipe kimjang-style.