A Song of Kimchi and Fire

Vegan Kimchi

ca. 1,3 kg / prep. time: ca. 1h / soaking time: ca. 8h / fermentation: 8-10 days

  • 1 large firm napa cabbage

  • 85g coarse sea salt

  • 5g sticky rice flower

  • 3 Tbsp sugar

  • 20ml Dasima

  • ¼ Daikon radish (ca. 250g)

  • 2 scallions

  • ¼ leak (the middle light green part)

  • ¼ Nashi (or 1 regular) pear

  • 4 cloves of garlic

  • 1 piece of ginger (ca. 5g)

  • 40g Gochutgaru chili powder

  • 2 Tbsp soy sauce

  • 2 Tbsp vegan fish sauce (optional)

  • 1 Tbsp apple vinegar

  • Sea salt


1. Remove the outer leaves from the napa cabbage. Cut in half lengthwise and rinse. Spread the coarse sea salt between the leaves. Put the cabbage halves in a large bowl, cover with water, and place a heavy plate over it to keep it submerged. Leave to soak at room temperature for 6-8 hours.

It takes between 7 and 8 hours to get from South Koreas's capital Seoul to Jeju island. Jejudo, 제주도, Island of the Gods, located where the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea merge, dominated by the Hallasan, a volcano, 1,950 metres high. If you set your foot on Jeju ground, you stand on 2 million year-old lava and basalt. Like on every volcanic island, water and fire, earth and sky meet in the most pristine, ancient, timeless, ever-changing way. The sea is turquoise, alluring, sometimes it is smooth like a mirror, at other times it throws itself violently against the black stone. The rain season lasts for nearly two months, during those the air is hot and heavy with humidity, sweaty clothes stick to one’s skin, the skies breathe relentlessly. In fall and winter, the winds and waves are often rough, the smell of the sea seeps in everywhere, walk by the water and lick your lips, and you can taste the saltiness of the elements. It’s the island of my ancestors, I like to believe. But I can’t know for sure. There is nobody I could ask.

Jeju island is said to have one of the rare societies worldwide with semi-matriarchal structures. But as everywhere, girls and women have been subjected to the authority and will of the male head of the family. What is certain though is the crucial role that many women traditionally played as the primary laborer. The Haenyeo divers are gritty, brave women who entrust the sea with their lives and plunge down into its dark depths to harvest abalone, conch, octopus, sea urchins, sea squirt, brown alga, top shell, a variety of sargassum, oysters, sea slugs, and much more. If you walk along Jeju's shores, you might spot their tiny black heads and orange buoys in the distance, floating amongst the white crests of the waves. But as in so many other parts of the world, the old ways of living are dying, the number of sea women is dwindling, there are safer, easier, more profitable ways to make a living, industries and businesses offer stable jobs and better money.

2. Mix rice flower with 20ml water and bring to boil in a small pot. Constantly stir. Take off the stove and mix in 1 tbsp of sugar.

Korean food is usually very spicy but many dishes contain a surprising amount of sugar and sweeteners. Taste a spoonful of kimchi and a lot of foreign and intense flavors unfold in your mouth. First and foremost, the taste of chili and fermented cabbage will challenge your taste buds (my recipe* skips the fermented anchovies but add those if you want that extra punch). And probably you would not guess that there is a big chunk of pear, a good bit of sweet rice syrup and a couple of tablespoons of sugar in it, would you?

When she gave birth to me, she was so young. When she was my age, I was an eleven-year old child whose whereabouts were as unknown to her as those of my father. What an ancient way of punishing women: shaming them for getting pregnant, forcing them to give birth to a child they don't want, shaming them for not having a child they don't want, or make them give away their babies. Korean society would not tolerate young women to have a child, without husband, without marriage, without the necessary means, without the required social status. She was a young girl away from home, they had a very short relationship, she got pregnant, he disappeared. It’s a story as old as time and it never fails to make me mad. Mad at him and every other man who has ever done the same. Mad at the patriarchal world we live in, that claims to be civilized but still has old abusive men deciding about the fate of young girls, their bodies, their babies, their futures. In the name of benevolence, charity, faith.

Sugar, ah honey honey

Oh sugar, pour a little sugar on it honey.

3. Rinse and peel the radish and carrot(s) and cut into match sticks. Wash the scallions and leak and cut diagonally into thing rings.


"Self-injury is the act of deliberately harming your own body, such as cutting or burning yourself. It's typically not meant as a suicide attempt. Rather, this type of self-injury is a harmful way to cope with emotional pain, intense anger and frustration. While self-injury may bring a momentary sense of calm and a release of tension, it's usually followed by guilt and shame and the return of painful emotions.

Signs and symptoms of self-injury may include:

  • Scars, often in patterns

  • Fresh cuts, scratches, bruises, bite marks or other wounds

  • Excessive rubbing of an area to create a burn

  • Keeping sharp objects on hand

  • Wearing long sleeves or long pants, even in hot weather

  • Frequent reports of accidental injury

  • Difficulties in interpersonal relationships

  • Behavioral and emotional instability, impulsivity and unpredictability

  • Statements of helplessness, hopelessness or worthlessness

Self-injury usually occurs in private and is done in a controlled or ritualistic manner that often leaves a pattern on the skin. Most frequently, the arms, legs and front of the torso are the targets of self-injury, but any area of the body may be used for self-injury. People who self-injure may use more than one method to harm themselves. Becoming upset can trigger an urge to self-injure. Many people self-injure only a few times and then stop. But for others, self-injury can become a long-term, repetitive behavior."

4. Peel the pear and remove the core. Peel and roughly chop ginger and garlic. Use a blending stick to make a smooth paste with the pear, ginger, garlic, chili flakes, soy sauce, fish sauce, ½ TS salt, 2 tbsp sugar, and apple vinegar. Add more salt if necessary. Mix with radish, scallions, leak, Dasima, and rice flour paste.

Making kimchi is traditionally a very social activity with a strong female component. The recipe is passed down from mothers to daughters or mothers-in-law to daughters-in-law in what I imagine as an intimate, almost ritual process. Kimchi is the sort of thing that always tastes best if it is made my ma or grandma because there is so much more to it than just the mere taste. It is home, it is identity, it is heritage.

Kimchi-related knowledge and skills are also transferred among neighbors, relatives or other members of the society who work collectively, sharing know-how and materials, to prepare large quantities of kimchi for the winter months. This activity, known as kimjang, brings together many individuals of a society. It is said to strengthen cooperation among families, villages and commu-nities, thereby increasing social cohesion. In 2015, it was appointed as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. As the UN state on their website: "Kimchi-making brings to the bearers a sense of joy and pride, as well as respect for the natural environment, encouraging them to lead their lives in harmony with nature."

5. Drain the cabbage, rinse it, and press out as much liquid as possible. Cover every leaf with chili paste and place in an airtight container. Keep it in a spot without direct daylight at room temperature for 1-2 days. Once the kimchi has started to produce liquid and bubbles, place the container in the fridge.

I take a deep breath and readjust my apron with the encrypted "Kimchi Bitch" print. I feel an odd mix of embarrassment, excitement, fear, joy, and pride. My friend Finn and I are about to start our kimchi workshop at a cultural center in Gothenburg. I still can’t wrap my mind around the fact that I am actually doing this. I did my first batch of kimchi less than a year ago, self-taught because there was no one to teach me, and here I am, letting a bunch of kimchi newbies into the secret of kimchi making. A very diverse crowd has gathered around our table and I stumble through the instructions in my half-baked Swedish, sometimes throwing in an English expression which gets translated by someone. Surprisingly, I feel relatively confident because the majority of participants appears to have some sort of immigrant background. Finn translates everything I say into Chinese for some elderly Chinese-speaking participants. Her 4-year old daughter plays with a friend at the other side of the room. She speaks fluent Chinese, Swedish, and English and I wonder how the world is unfolding for her trilingual mind. At the beginning of the workshop, Finn introduces me as German and I fear for a second that this might undermine my kimchi authority. Wouldn’t people prefer if I was Korean? Am I Korean? There it is again, the gnawing feeling of somehow being not good enough. Or plainly wrong. Fake, false, a Faux-rean, as a genius friend of mine (also adopted from Korea) once put it. I try to pass as white. I try to pass as German. I try to pass as Korean. I try to pass as the well-adapted immigrant, the ever-grateful adoptee. But no matter what I try, it won't ever feel right.

Whatever, I think, you got that kimchi face and a "kimchi-bitch" apron, that should be sufficient to give you credibility. "Alright", I say. "Are you ready?"

After 8-10 days, the kimchi is ready to enjoy.

* The recipe I use is from a Korean cookbook called "Kimchi Princess" by the owner of the same-named restaurant in Berlin.

** All images by Theo Aalders

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