Aug 9, 2012

The Kimchi Lesson

by Kari Diane Pike

Kimchi. If you know what it is, you either love it or you hate it. My introduction to this Korean staple of pickled cabbage, garlic, and red peppers came from a newly returned missionary who roomed with my husband during his BYU days. I never actually tasted the stuff back then. I couldn't get past the permeating odor. Years later however, I not only enjoy the nose-dripping, eye-watering heat of the tangy dish, I crave it.

I have to admit that when our Korean foster daughters first brought kimchi into the house, I not only refused to eat it, but I complained and whined about the smell. How can I describe it? The essence of kimchi has the ability to penetrate and bind itself with every imaginable substance -- clothing, glass, plastic, coolers, refrigerators, and the human body. (Those of you who know...I hear you laughing!)

My love affair with kimchi began when I met the mother of  those four beautiful girls. Newly arrived to the U.S. from Korea, Ha Kyung Shick treated us to a traditional Korean dinner complete with -- kimchi. Isn't it interesting how food plays such a big role in cultures? I really wanted to be friends with Kyung and I knew that to refuse to eat would cause offense. The fact that I was still recovering from a bad case of gardia didn't help matters. But it was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

I learned along the way that while I can find kimchi in the grocery store, it is not the same as homemade. Not only is it pricey, but it just doesn't taste the same. It's bitter and usually mushy. I wanted to learn how to make my own. "Fresh" kimchi fills my mouth with this indescribable flavor that pushes my happy buttons! (and I should also mention here that kimchi has been named as one of the top five most nutritional foods!) Besides, I object to paying almost $8.00 for a pint jar of pickled cabbage! Well, at least I did until I learned the lesson of  making kimchi.

When I met Jusun Nelson and discovered that she is native Korean, I begged her to teach me how to make kimchi. I told her I would purchase all the ingredients. Jusun smiled and patted me on the shoulder and told me to wait until her garden was ready. She said that the timing had to be just right and that she would let me know when that time came. In the mean time, I enjoyed getting to know Jusun. She would see me sitting outside the tent trailer and stop to chat. She frequently brought some kind of food gift and she always brought me a hug, a smile, and words of comfort. Once, when she found out that I was completely broke and out of gas, she even offered to let me use her car and it's 1/2 tank of gas to run errands.

Just before my move back to Arizona, Jusun agreed that the time had come. My sister-in-law Becky, Jusun, and I piled into Becky's Expedition and headed to the Korean market. We bought 50 pounds of Napa cabbage, a large bag of already peeled garlic cloves, several pieces of fresh ginger, Korean radishes (I don't know what they are called), and shrimp paste.Oh, and sea salt. Lots and lots of sea salt. I couldn't wait to get started -- and start eating fresh kimchi.This was going to be so easy! (I'm so naive!)

Let's just say that making kimchi is labor intensive. (Two weeks later, I still have the remains of the blisters I got from cutting up cabbage and radishes.) Just the right amount of salt has to be sprinkled between the leaves of the cabbage which then has to be left to marinate for the right amount of time to soften the leaves. (Often overnight.) Once the pepper paste has been created out of pureed garlic and peppers and ginger and shrimp paste and mixed with julienned radishes, you have to carefully rub this seasoning in between each layer of the cabbage leaves, making sure you leave behind just the right amount. Then you roll the leaves up and pack them into jars. The sealed jars get placed in the refrigerator and left to age for a good three to four weeks. (Koreans take great pride in their special Kimchi refrigerators -- not unlike the way other people treat wine. There are as many varieties of Kimchi as wine as well!)

While we worked, we talked and laughed. When I learned that Jusun's husband has been unemployed for more than three years I experienced a humility beyond anything I have experienced before. All summer long, Jusun had been serving me, encouraging me, and giving me her widow's mite. She was on her last 1/2 tank of gas, but she had been willing to share it with me -- without a word of complaint.

Two gallon-sized jars of kimchi sit on the shelf of our refrigerator. I still have another week to wait before it is ready to eat. I could eat it now and it would be good, but I know that by waiting, it will be even better. Kimchi taught me about patience and the value of hard work. As in life, there is a season for making kimchi and everyone works together. More than that though, kimchi taught me about friendship and sacrifice and what it truly means to follow in the Savior's footsteps in loving and serving one another.


  1. So now you like kimchi? My nephew served his mission in Korea, and raved about the stuff, so we bought a jar. Like you, I couldn't get past the HORRIBLE smell. We promplty drove the stinky stuff to my nephews house and marvled as he ate it with a smile. No experience with it since.

  2. I know all about Kimchi thanks to Yo. What a wonderful story. You should write a book about it.


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