Autumn Heralds Kimjang Season

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Autumn Heralds Kimjang Season

If you go to any of the larger Korean food markets at this time of year, it will be hard to miss the trucks loaded high with piles of baechu, Chinese cabbage, and moo or radishes, for this is the kimjang season, the time when Korean households prepare enough kimchi - the spicy pickled Korean cabbage that accompanies virtually all Korean meals - to last through the winter months.

Taking part in the centuries-old tradition of kimjang on Tuesday were some 30 members of the American Chamber of Commerce and 40 Korean volunteers. They participated in a program to make kimchi for welfare facilities, organized by P & G Korea and held at the Korea House in downtown Seoul. With all the ingredients ready on the tables in front of them, the volunteers carefully followed step-by-step instructions given out over a loudspeaker, making about 20 tons of kimchi that were then delivered to orphanages, nursing homes and other welfare services.

For most of the foreign participants, it was the first time they had ever tried their hands at making kimchi. "The first time I tried kimchi was back in Boston in 1983, but this is the first time for me to actually make it," said Pietro Doran, who has been in Korea for nine years, as he mixed the julienned radish and the powered red pepper.

Although all the ingredients had been prepared beforehand, needing only to be mixed together and stuffed into the layers of cabbage, making kimchi turned out to be not a simple task. "I really enjoy eating kimchi but I will not try making it at home," said Takao Kawano, as he struggled to keep the cabbage leaves from fanning out and dropping most of the stuffing.

While both men were novices at making kimchi, they knew what they were talking about when they discussed the taste of kimchi. Though a version of kimchi is popular in Japan, Mr. Kawano prefers the kimchi made here because "it is not simply spicy but has a depth of taste," a richness that is attributed to the larger variety of seasonings that go into making Korean kimchi.

In the making of a typical wintertime kimchi, julienned radish, scallions, oyster, small shrimps, ginger, garlic, powered red pepper, shrimp sauce and anchovy sauce are mixed together and stuffed into cabbage leaves that have previously been pickled in salt.

"I love kimchi but my particular favorite is the winter kimchi," Mr. Doran said, referring to the zing peculiar to kimchi that has been stored for a longer period of time.

In early November every year, housewives throughout the country begin to debate when they should hold kimjang. If made too early, the kimchi will be over-ripe before the winter is over, but if made too late, it will freeze before getting a chance to ferment, a process necessary to bring out the full flavor of kimchi.

"Timing is vital and it is difficult to figure out just the right time for kimjang because the weather varies from year to year," said Cho Soon-ae, a 55-year-old housewife from Yonhi-dong in Seoul, who plans to make about 30 cabbage heads of kimchi to last her and her husband through the winter. "I made the mistake of making kimchi too early last year. This year, I am doing it later than usual because it has been unseasonably warm," she said. "But, then again, we are only into the last week of October according to the lunar calendar, so this warm weather is not that surprising," she added, explaining that the lunar calendar should be used in figuring out when to begin the kimjang season.

For those who are not familiar with the lunar calendar, the Korea Meteorological Administration takes the guesswork out of setting a kimjang date, issuing an advisory notice every year on when to plan the event. Mrs. Cho was not too far off the mark this year. The KMA earlier this month recommended that kimjang be held seven or eight days later than usual this year, from Oct. 30 to Dec. 10 for those living in Seoul and the interior areas of the country.

This is because winter kimchi will attain its distinctive taste when the daily low dips below freezing and the average daily temperature remains under 4 degrees Celsius, the KMA explained.

Mrs. Cho, like many other Koreans who live in houses with some land, will have her husband dig several holes in their backyard deep enough for the large earthenware pots in which the kimchi is stored. Refrigerators just don't keep kimchi fresh for the whole of the winter, according to Mrs. Cho. Putting the pots of kimchi underground means they are maintained at a constant temperature of 4 to 5 degrees Celsius, vital to ensuring that the kimchi stays fresh.

For those not fortunate enough to have plots of land available, such as the many urban dwellers who live in high-rise apartments, kimchi refrigerators have come to the rescue.

First put on the market in 1995, the specially designed kimchi fridges promise to keep kimchi fresh for up to four months. Once again, the key is maintaining a constant temperature. "Regular refrigerators can have temperature fluctuations of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius but our kimchi refrigerators cut that down to 0.5 degrees Celsius," said Cho Shin-hyung at Samsung Electronics, one of the leading makers of kimchi refrigerators. The fridges also maintain the optimal humidity level for kimchi.

Sales of these technological wonders have been brisk as housewives look for ways to free themselves from worrying about whether their stocks of winter kimchi will last them through the winter. ElectronicLand, an electronics and home appliances retailer in Yongsan, Seoul, reports having sold 3,000 kimchi refrigerators last month. "We expect that figure to reach about 4,500 this month as we hit the kimjang season," projected Min Byung-soo, manager at ElectronicLand. Peace of mind does not come cheap, however; the average price of a 130 liter-capacity kimchi refrigerator is between 700,000 - 800,000 won ($630 - $730).

"It is estimated that about 13 percent of all households will own a kimchi refrigerator by the end of the year, compared to 6.7 percent recorded last year," said Mr.Cho.

The popularity of kimchi refrigerators was held partially responsible for the 30 percent drop in the price of Chinese cabbage in a recent survey by the Agricultural Cooperative's Hanaro Club, because less people are finding it necessary to make additional kimchi during the winter to replace that which has gone sour.

However, just when Koreans seem to be making less kimchi, kimchi is rapidly making inroads into overseas markets. According to the Korea Agricultural and Fishery Marketing Corporation, Korea exported some $78 million worth of kimchi last year.

"We've been able to improve our export figures by catering to the different tastes of foreign consumers," said Kim Dong-whan, general manager of the overseas team of the Doosan Corporation, a company which manufactures and markets the "Zonnga" brand of packaged kimchi. For example, kimchi bound for Japan and Hong Kong is made less spicy and a type of cabbage with a higher sugar content is used, Mr. Kim explained.

The government has also been actively promoting kimchi exports, which began to take off in 1997.

"This year we are providing kimchi exporters with some 2.4 billion won in logistics support. We also provide incentives for them to explore new markets," said Lim Hun-ju, manager in charge of export support at the state-owned KAFMC.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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