Young Ju Rainey held a floppy piece of napa cabbage between her thumb and forefinger.
“If you bend [it] over and it breaks, there’s not enough salt,” said Rainey—originally from Daegu, South Korea—explaining that she had quartered about 40 heads of cabbage, slathered them in sea salt overnight, then rinsed them thoroughly.
A handful of Rainey’s daughter’s friends had gathered in her Boise kitchen to learn the art of making kimchi: a spicy, fermented dish that’s prepared in hundreds of different styles and considered the soul of Korean cuisine.
Kimchi-making parties, known as Gimjang, are common this time of year in Korea, when families and friends converge to assemble giant batches of the bright red fermented pickle to last them through the winter.
In one corner of Rainey’s kitchen, someone grated daikon radishes into matchsticks on a mandolin, while another person chopped green onions into three-inch segments, and someone else ripped kale and mustard greens into bite-sized chunks.
Dwarfed by a giant stainless steel mixing bowl, Rainey kneaded a fragrant mound of ground fresh ginger, garlic, dried red pepper powder, sugar, salt and fish sauce into paste, folding in the chopped ingredients and a splash of cold water.
“You mix it all together like you’re washing clothes,” said Rainey, wearing a pair of sturdy yellow rubber gloves. “That way you get all the ingredients mixed.”
“That’s funny, ‘Like you’re washing clothes,’” said her daughter, Hannah Rainey, with a smile. “None of us wash clothes by hand, Mom.”
But according to Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation, most Koreans still make kimchi by hand: The Korean Food Research Institute estimates that three-quarters of all kimchi consumed in South Korea is made in the home and the average Korean adult consumes more than a quarter pound of kimchi every day.
The dish is prized for its health benefits—not only is it a good source of vitamins A, B, C and fiber, but the lactic acid created during fermentation (also found in yogurt) helps aid digestion.
Sitting on the floor, Rainey rubbed generous amounts of the pepper paste under the leaves of the quartered cabbages, tucked them into balls and stacked them in a large, lined plastic tub. For the kimchi party guests, she massaged the pepper paste into a bowl of coarsely chopped cabbage, then stuffed the mixture tightly into mason jars.
Everything in the process—from the salting, which keeps the cabbage crisp and creates a selective environment in which salt-tolerant, lactic acid-producing bacteria can grow, to the dense pack, which keeps the veggies submerged in their juices—contributes to the magic of kimchi’s fermentation. And while kimchi was traditionally buried in clay pots to ferment slowly at a steady temperature underground, most modern Korean families have a special refrigerator to age their kimchi.
Though Rainey has a fridge in the garage where she stores kimchi, which her family eats all through winter until March, she prefers it freshly made.
“When I was younger, I liked the sour one, I didn’t like the fresh one,” said Rainey, dishing up a plate of boiled pork, sticky rice and a heaping mound of fragrant kimchi. “But getting older, I like the fresh one better.”