When I happened upon this kimchi assembly line in an icy Korean side street, I was already a fan of that country's national dish. Now I would discover first hand, down and dirty, what made those kimchi (often spelled kimchee) barrels tick – or ferment, or bubble, or fizz, whatever.
My instructor, with her limited English, seemed to relish (slight pun intended) this encounter to teach her nation’s culinary art to a Westerner who lingered on a frosty night to observe the steps up the kimchi food chain.
"Wash first," she explained while dipping stalks of Chinese cabbage into a plastic tub of water. (Chinese cabbage is a cross between celery and the cannonballs of our regular cabbage). At the same time her sous chef were splitting off the raw material, using the cobblestone pavement as a working board. At stage left, two chef’s aides were working furiously to pull stalks from a leafy mountain of kimchi raw material that had been unceremoniously dumped in the alley. It reached nearly to the top of the tiny restaurant, now closed due to the late hour.
Using single stalks my instructor scooped up a bit of water from the tub with each and patterned them into a helix spiraling up from the bottom of a heavy rubber barrel with the leaves intricately facing the outside edge.
"Now salt," she continued, sprinkling rock salt on each level of cabbage. "Tomorrow we wash. Then we pack with pepper. Where salt was." Dried and ground up, Korean peppers rank right up there with habeneros, Hungarian paprika, jalapenos and, some say, fresh volcanic lava.
When would it be ready to eat? I asked the question as an exit line, an excuse to go home to the heated floor of my hotel (a Korean tradition). Giggling, the women looked at each other as my instructor reached into the barrel of brewing kimchi just off the street/alley of Dongduchon and offered me a dripping, salty leaf.
What could I do? I accepted the cabbage leaf. I had paid my dues for the performance, and can report that my audience seemed pleased that an American had happened by who appreciated their effort and tasted a sample.
Finally, it was explained to me (with the aid of my pocket calendar) that by the day after tomorrow these kimchi vats would be sealed with only the tops sticking out of the snow. The night’s preparation would percolate all winter and then stock the restaurant's pantry for a season.
Since kimchi is fast becoming world food, the export-minded Koreans sell it made not only from cabbage but radishes, cucumber and white cabbage. In coastal areas, you get pickled anchoves. Kimchee is a major source of vitamin C, and the Koreans have always been a very healthy, hardy race.