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A tale of two kimchis – making a staple food in the North and South

Kim Ji Seung, intern  |  2016-12-02 14:04

A bunch of green onion costs 9,800 won (approx USD 8.35)? Thats pretty pricey. How about a little discount? 

Its the afternoon of November 23. Although its a weekday, Mangwon Traditional Market still bustles with customers searching for radish, cabbage, and other ingredients needed to make kimchi. The rise in single-occupier households in South Korea has resulted in increased sales for pre-packaged side dishes, and a decrease in cabbage sales. But despite this trend, the market is still buzzing with consumers hunting for ingredients. Among these customers we come across Lee Young Ah (pseudonym), a 43 year old defector from North Korea. Mrs. Lees left hand grasps a grocery bag as her right hand clutches her wallet. Shes come to the market to find top quality ingredients to make kimchi. 

Lee Young Ah first arrived in South Korea in 2010. Every year around this time, she thinks back to her days making kimchi in North Korea. Unlike in South Korea, food security is a real and pressing issue in the North, with a chronic shortage of greenhouses meaning there was only 3 or 4 varieties of kimchi to eat during the chilly winter months. These days, North Koreas gradual marketization has introduced an increased number of side dishes to choose from, but kimchi still plays a leading role as a staple of the North Korean diet. For this reason, making an ample supply of kimchi to survive the winter is an extremely important task. During mobilizations and lean times, kimchi becomes an especially important source of nutrition. 

Mrs. Lee notes that making kimchi in North Korea is like engaging in a battle. Normally, it involves family members and neighbors coming together for three or four days to turn a ton of cabbage into kimchi. They called the event The Kimchi Battle, or The Half Year Harvest. One ton is a large amount even when compared to the kimchi-loving South, where four person families consume about 22.7 heads of cabbage on average per annum. 

Mrs. Lee ends up getting a small discount for the green onion, purchasing it for 9,500 won. She smiles with content and moves along the street, stopping in front of a store selling cabbage along the way. She enters and inspects the cabbage meticulously, asking questions to the vendor as she unfurls the leaves and peers at the inner layers. She rips off a small leaf from the inside, puts in in her mouth, and mutters, Naturally, sweet cabbage makes the best kimchi. 

Compared to the kimchi battle waged every year in North Korea, Mrs. Lee says she regards the kimchi making season in South Korea as a leisurely activity. Without family and neighbors to help out, the process does get a bit lonely, but theres no need to make such a large amount. Furthermore, while Mrs. Lee grew radish and other vegetables herself in North Korea, here, she can easily get all the necessary ingredients on a single trip to the neighborhood store. Mrs. Lee says she was given days off from work in North Korea so she could participate in the kimchi battle.  

Vacations are given out so that residents can prepare for the winter by participating in kimchi battles
According to defector testimony, Kimchi Season Vacations are standard fare in North Korea. Because making kimchi is such a labor intensive process, North Korean employers have no choice but to excuse their workers for a few days during this time. Daily NK has also learned that as more and more women have entered the marketplace to earn a living for their family, it has become common practice for men to receive kimchi season vacations. Although the North Korean authorities do not officially recognize the holiday, local managers of factories and enterprises have the authority to grant vacation time at their own discretion.  

A defector from Ryanggang Province said, Kimchi making is extremely important in North Korea because the finished product has to last for half a year. Most women these days are working in the marketplace in some way or another. That means that more and more of them dont have enough time to commit to the process. 

Instead of losing money by reducing their time in the market, women are increasingly turning to their husbands, who take a kimchi vacation so they can lend a hand. The women are the breadwinners of the household in many cases. Some men have even directly approached their managers and asked for a kimchi vacation. If that doesnt work, they just find a different reason to take time off, the source continued.  

When asked about this, a defector from North Pyongan Province said, Making kimchi takes about 3 or 4 days. If you ask your manager in advance, they are usually accommodating. Male soldiers are also known to help out with carrying the heavy loads of cabbage. 

North Koreas marketization has affected nearly all aspects of society, kimchi making included. In the past, men were traditionally responsible for digging the hole in the ground that the ceramic kimchi vessels are put into (to allow the marinated cabbage to ferment). But now the men are involved in nearly every aspect of kimchi making.   

Defectors are also quick to point out the importance of kimchi preservation. In the South, kimchi usually gets placed in a special kimchi refrigerator as soon as it is made. People can then eat it whenever they like. In the North, the kimchi pot is placed in the ground to stay cool and ferment. 

Making the hole to preserve the kimchi is an important skill. Because temperatures vary across the North, different areas require different sized holes. Usually, a very deep hole is dug - as deep as two or three meters. The vessels are then well protected to ensure no dirt or clay will seep in. Finally, the holes are filled in with dirt.
The Ryanggang Province defector added, There are regional variations of course, but on average, people tend to put their kimchi in the ground in November and wait three months for it to ferment. Most people also create a smaller hole for a smaller vessel – thats for consumption in December. 

*Edited by Lee Farrand

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