My grandmother constantly toils away in the kitchen. Whenever I would visit her in Seoul, she would be mixing her special seafood pancake batter, peeling garlic, or braising quail eggs at almost any hour of the day. She usually cooked wearing a smooth, floral nightgown with black curls framing her face or pulled back in pink rollers, looking more like a fairy godmother than a grandmother. As a child, I would watch her skilled, seamless movements in the kitchen, almost like the swish of a wand, translating into the abundant banchan—Korean side dishes. The bowls of banchan, each containing small samples of seasoned Korean vegetables, would nearly collide with each other on the table like bumper cars fighting for space. The sight was almost overwhelming, yet pleasing at the same time. I would spot anchovies mixed with honey-glazed walnuts, the freshest, most uniform slices of fruit, and of course, carefully placed kimchi in the scalloped pastel plates that ever-so-slightly resembled her flowy nightgown in the midst of the table’s organized chaos. The messy elegance of the dishes on my grandparents’ ornate glass table was a welcoming sight and a breath of fresh air compared to the more casual Korean meals we would eat back at our suburban Atlanta home. My mom would reminisce on her mother’s cooking, telling me stories about how she became famous in the neighborhood for her kimchi, and cooked almost as if she were breathing life into each dish.
My mom enjoys her mother’s cooking, but on more recent trips to Korea, she feels guilty even for visiting. She is the only one out of my grandmother’s three children who lives in the United States. Yet my mom realizes her mother’s natural tendency to overprepare for our visit as if she has lived with her mother for all her life, perhaps because she tends to do the same for any guest visiting our house, family or not. Now she tells my grandmother not to prepare so many side dishes. My grandmother reassures her not to feel that way, and firmly expresses that there’s no trouble in cooking for us. I can’t help but feel a twinge in my stomach when I overhear this conversation and wonder how true it is, or if it’s even true at all. I wonder if she truly takes pleasure in waking up so early in the morning to prepare the dinner for that day, or if she feels obligated to prepare so much.
Cooking, I imagine, is an everyday, albeit burdensome occurrence for her. It is ingrained into every fiber of her being by the relatives of her past. She, like most Korean women from the mid-20th century, was raised in the traditional sense: to marry, have children, and be responsible for maintaining the household. I see it in the family photographs sitting on the ledge of the dining room window, coated in the soft, subtle, yet vibrant lights pouring in from outside. They are little grainy images older than me that capture my grandmother dressing my mom and aunt in their Sunday service attire. The crisp folds of their church dresses and hanboks seem to work against the test of time, their polished, yet colorful detailing still pristine and intact in each tiny square of history like the stained-glass windows at my grandparents’ church.
I also see it in the way my grandfather graces the dining room with his presence, with an air of sluggish, yet eager expectation surrounding him. He strongly believes in eating three hearty meals a day just as much as he believes in his faith, and depends on my grandmother to prepare them for him. Even when my grandmother is sick, her first instinct is to return to the kitchen to cook some more, and my grandfather expects no less. He arrives to the table only when called, and is usually the last to sit down. He sits at the very end of the table, almost like he is leading a business meeting, and like the head within several cabbage leaves. When he sits down, he unifies the family, and the table—or the cabbage—is complete.
When I sit at the dining table at arm’s length from my grandfather, I notice the ever-present kimchi, a staple side dish in Korean cuisine. At first, I didn’t think much of it, just that it was fermented and spicy cabbage. Although I like spicy food, I rarely eat kimchi, and frankly I would rather not eat it unless it’s in kimchi stew. As a child, I never thought about where that kimchi came from, or what painstaking labor went into making a batch of kimchi. It never occurred to me that kimchi goes through a long, thought-out process. Preparation involves cutting the cabbage, bathing the cabbage in salt water, generously salting the cabbage after washing, reusing the salt water by pouring it over the cabbage, and setting it aside for the next several hours to absorb the salty flavors. My grandmother checks on the cabbage every few hours to rotate the leaves and makes a concoction of garlic, ginger, and red pepper flakes in the meantime. She adds in thin, fresh radish slices for extra crunchiness and crispness, the way kimchi should be. Preparing the kimchi is time-consuming, but fermenting it takes even longer — from a couple of days, to weeks, to even months, when it’s still safe to eat from the fridge.
My mom, on the other hand, buys kimchi from the Korean grocery store instead of fermenting it herself from a traditional clay pot (called onggi) or a kimchi fridge like my grandmother would. In our family, she, too, almost exclusively takes on preparation and cooking endeavors while I help set up her creations. She takes cooking seriously, even though she doesn’t cook as much from scratch or prepare as much as my grandmother. It is simply a way of life for her, the way it was for my grandmother and the other women in my family. My dad, despite living in the United States for most of his life, remains traditionally Korean at his core and leaves the cooking to her. Like my grandfather, he comes to eat when called, but doesn’t get involved in the cooking. It’s not that he doesn’t know how to cook, having two restaurants of his own, but he simply expects her to do so. I, as a Korean-American who had never lived in Korea, found this expectation puzzling and unnatural. Despite not understanding this relationship, and not understanding my family’s appetite for kimchi, I found that kimchi stew, strangely enough, became one of my favorite dishes. It also brought my parents together, yet strengthened the overlooked role my mom had in the family.
My mom would start the preparation for kimchi stew by slicing intentionally over-fermented kimchi, which had been stored in our refrigerator for over a week. She would keep the kimchi partially submerged in the kimchi’s liquid, saving the “kimchi soup,” as she called it, for flavoring the broth. She would place the kimchi in the pot, pour in some of the soup, then chop Spam and tofu while my dad would watch over the stew. The stew would slowly boil and start to emit its strong aroma as my dad would add in a block of ramen and stir it to optimal temperature and taste. One bite of the stew is sour, cutting directly to my taste buds. Yet it is still comforting, bringing me back to the mornings and nights I sat at my grandparents’ table in their quaint neighborhood south of the Han River, and to where it all started: the blood, sweat, and tears my grandmother sacrificed just to feed us.
At the same time, kimchi stew is not just a Korean dish or tradition. It is the melting pot my dad imagined the United States to be before his journey here, the American Dream my parents pursued, and above all, the cooking work from generations of women in my family gone unnoticed. The store-bought kimchi we use to cook the stew is not just a choice of convenience, but an adaptation of the kimchi my grandmother and her ancestors worked so laboriously to make. It is an adaptation of the Korean woman my relatives want me to be, despite some of them being women with dreams who gave them up and followed the traditions without question. It is the times my mom sat down with me and told me there is more to life than just following traditions. It is the times she told me to carve my own path with the unique opportunities I can potentially have, not the ones I have already been assigned. It is with these conversations that I realize I may not be the kimchi fermented straight from the earthenware crock, or the person conforming to the traditionally Korean ideals expected of me. I may not have been born on the soil where kimchi is originally grown. Yet kimchi is all the more important to me because it is where my dreams were born. I have my own dreams not of making or buying kimchi, but growing my own cabbage garden, both in progress and complete on my own terms, where the leaves are my dreams.