In a giant warehouse in southeastern Seoul, a salesman under darkened rafters takes the stage and calls for bids. Hundreds of buyers respond in a quiet flurry of hand signals, and bulk merchandise begins to move.
It's 2 a.m. at the Karak agro-fisheries wholesale market, and the humic odor of leafy vegetables mingles with diesel exhaust. Trucks stacked with cabbage and daikon radishes - clods of field dirt still stuck to them - are parked head to toe.
There is so much cabbage here, it is hard to imagine that it will all get eaten. But as it is pickled with red pepper, garlic, dried fish, and other ingredients, and is slowly transformed into kimchi, one realizes that the nation is simply stocking up for the winter. Or as Koreans say, kimjangchull - kimchi-making season.
Vegetables have been stored in brine by Koreans for more than 3,000 years. From late November to mid-December, the nation is mobilized in this timeless ritual to make the spicy dish that accompanies every Korean meal.
Around the country, small trucks with cabbage pull up into narrow side streets, and nearby vendors supply piles of sliced roots, red peppers, and peeled garlic cloves. Three or four women sit together, rinsing cabbage in the street and mixing the ingredients in big plastic tubs.
A dash of dried fish here, some pear there, and each batch has its own signature. The varieties are endless: In the mountains it is made with cassia bark and by the coast with frozen pollack and squid. Although cabbage is standard, there is dropwort, eggplant, cucumber, bamboo sprout, pumpkin, persimmon, and sesame leaf kimchi. There's even hot pepper kimchi pickled and spiced with more hot peppers.
At the kimchi museum at the base of Seoul's World Trade Center, a landmark skyscraper, two totem poles guard the entrance. On the wall is a 12th-century poem by Yi Kyu-bo: "Put the radish leaf into soy sauce and eat in summer, and pickle them for winter." Ceramic storage pots, spice mortars, and food facsimiles are displayed inside, but a living rendition is as close as the nearest apartment.
While some families will prepare as many as 100 heads of cabbage, fewer households take the trouble to make winter kimchi these days and will pickle just 10 to 20 heads.
Part of the reason is that kimchi is ideally stored underground, but on apartment balconies, where many families store their pots, temperatures fluctuate too much. It is also easier to get vegetables out of season these days.
But these changes haven't diminished the national passion for kimchi. Often the Korean craving for pickled cabbage is one that foreigners have trouble understanding, like the British craving for Marmite, or the Australian's fondness for Vegemite.
One streetside kimchi-maker puts it in context: "Look, if you Americans eat a hamburger, you need a cola to go with it. Rice without kimchi is bland."
This fiery, fermented cabbage is a staple throughout Korea and surrounding northern China where it is served at every meal. Many visitors to Korea say the entire country smells of kimchi.
1 large Chinese (napa) cabbage
4 tablespoons kosher or sea salt
4 scallions, trimmed and cut in 2-inch lengths
1 carrot, peeled, and cut into thin coins
1/2 cup daikon (Japanese white radish), peeled and cut into thin slivers, about 1-inch long (optional)
1 teaspoon (or more) dried, hot chili pepper flakes
3 tablespoons fresh ginger, finely minced
2 teaspoons sugar
Trim and discard end of cabbage. Cut cabbage at 1-1/2-inch intervals. Place chopped cabbage in a large non-aluminum bowl; toss with salt, and cover with cold water. Cover bowl with a plate and let stand, unrefrigerated, 6 to 8 hours. Drain, but do not rinse, and toss in remaining ingredients. Cover again, and let kimchi stand at room temperature for 2 to 4 days, stirring occasionally.
Cabbage will mellow and reduce in size as it ferments. Taste after two days and add a bit more dried chili pepper flakes if you wish.
Kimchi will keep for several weeks once refrigerated.
Makes about 1 quart.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society