As winter draws in, it is time to harvest and put away those last winter vegetables. and naturally the mind turns to cabbage.
I have a pint jar of homemade sauerkraut ripening in my cupboard, and I bought another four pound cabbage today, with the intent to put some more up. In the wintertime, vegetables come to the northwest from further and further away. As a result, they become more and more expensive, and the quality suffers. Since I’m very poor, I have noticed the lack of fruits and vegetables in my life, and have fantasized about them… to the point of having troubling dreams about something as humble as the raisin. Fermenting cabbage into sauerkraut preserves it, and enhances the availability of its nutrients. Cabbage already being a highly nutritive vegetable, this makes the fermented cabbage a boon to the impoverished during the off-season.
And the sauerkraut is great, or it’s going to be in another couple of weeks, but one of the things that irks me the most about being poor is the lack of resources to use pursuing culinary experiments. For the last few weeks, this has meant daydreaming about kimchi.
Kimchi is a Korean dish of fermented cabbage and chile and other ingredients. It has the same notable nutritional advantages of sauerkraut, but with additional micronutrients, flavor, and protein (from fish based ingredients). It is so nutritionally complete that some Korean dinners are as simple as kimchi and rice. The kimchi has a complex flavor profile, including the sweet, the salty, the savory, the vegetal, the bitter. This makes it a more satisfying dish than most simple vegetable dishes.
Kimchi is normally packed up in the winter, the cabbage leaves coated with a mixture of fish sauce, shrimp paste, chile, rice flour, and other vegetables. Rural communities will pack it into clay jars to ferment; with multiple families cooperating to store hundreds of cabbages for the winter. Monasteries will produce gallons of kimchi and distribute it to poor families. Urban households commonly have a separate kimchi refrigerator, and families will often store several different types of kimchi… from the common cabbage, to mustard greens, radish, green onions, and cucumbers. Once the kimchi is produced, families will eat it all through the winter, sometimes through the year… the fermented cabbage, kept cool, even without refrigeration, will keep for months or years. Some kimchi is ripened in caves over the course of several years.
This is the kind of food tradition that we lack in urban western society… the kind of food culture that turns corn into gods and rice into slender maidens. The kind of food tradition that tickles the imagination and eases the fears of scarcity that spring up unbidden from the dark recesses of our primitive brains. It is the kind of food tradition that feeds the soul as well as the body.
It’s more than that, though… it’s a wise way to use resources. It preserves food, preventing waste, allowing one large harvest of cabbages to sustain households during a time in which otherwise, cabbage would not be available. It brings communities together, and forges common societal bonds. It employs the delicate touch of rot, in a controlled way, to not just preserve food, but to improve it.
In modern western societies, we have traded these old food ways for convenience. The only sauerkraut I have ever had prior to this was sauerkraut that was produced with vinegar and then pasteurized in a jar and stored on a grocery shelf until purchase. It has none of the complexity of flavor of the original fermented goods that it was produced to mimic, and it has none of the improvements to the nutritional availability. It is sterile food, clean and robotic and sanitized.
Since my brief experience fermenting sauerkraut, my doubts have melted away and I have fantasized about producing a tub of kimchi and storing it in the bottom of my fridge, eating it through the cold months. The idea of always having something spicy and sour and delicious available to me, and not having to worry about whether it will spoil or not, appeals to my frugal side. The concept of engaging with food in the way that humans used to all over the globe delights the creative mind, because it wraps us in a story, half legend and half history. The thought of employing existing microbes to preserve food for winter has a simplicity to it that delights me. The idea of coming home to have a hot meal of kimchi and rice, or of kimchi pork stew, or on a hard week, of top ramen with kimchi mixed in, has a hominess to it that to me feels comfortable and warm. Maybe it’s because I spent a part of my youth in southeast Asia, or maybe it’s because food is a big part of my emotional landscape… maybe it’s a part of the yearning for genuineness that seems to be cropping up in the cracks of the dominant culture in America lately. I’m not sure.
At this point, of course, I can’t afford the ingredients to set aside a winter’s worth of kimchi. That doesn’t stop me from thinking about it… I have spent at least some of each day over the last week looking up ingredients, watching videos, and reading stories about kimchi… activities that are at once partially satisfying and also whetting my appetite. Once I get a job, I guarantee you that I’ll be at the local Asian grocer, picking up some Korean chile powder and some shrimp paste, and I’ll spend a weekend setting by a big tub of cabbage for myself.