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Inside North Korea

Kimjang in N. Korea



Sanggang is one of the traditional 24 seasonal divisions and the day when the first frost of the season can be seen. This year, the seasonal indicator that marks the end of autumn falls on October 24th. Following this day, farmers in South Korea harvest vegetables needed for kimjang, the traditional practice of making kimchi before the winter season. It is said that the kimjang season begins about a month earlier in North Korea, which has colder temperatures than the South. 

On today’s installment of Inside North Korea, we’ll talk about North Korea’s kimjang, one of the most important winter preparations, with Ahn Young-ja, a North Korean food expert who previously worked as a special chef for the leadership class in North Korea. 

The kimjang season starts in October in North Korea, where the summer is shorter and the winter is longer than the South. People in the North usually consume kimchi made during kimjang until May or June of the following year. 

Kimchi is an essential side dish for North Koreans, especially during the winter when vegetables are rare. A dish of delicious kimchi and a bowl of steamed rice make for a wonderful meal. If North Koreans miss the kimjang season and fail to prepare enough kimchi, they believe that they will have nothing to eat during the whole winter. So, making kimchi before the winter is a very important national event. Local people call it the “kimjang battle” and compete with each other to see how many jars they can fill with kimchi. In other words, kimjang means a lot to North Koreans. 

People in South Korea usually start preparing for kimjang after ipdong, the traditional start of winter that comes in early November. But preparations for kimjang start in October in North Korea, where the winter begins earlier and lasts longer. 

Kimchi made during kimjang is called “half-year food” in the North, where food supplies can be inadequate during the long winter. For local people, it is not easy to eat fresh greens in winter, as it is not common to raise vegetables in plastic-covered greenhouses in the country. So, if they do not make enough kimchi during kimjang, they will have very few side dishes throughout the winter. For that reason, North Korean residents focus all their energy on kimjang, while the government also fully supports this important annual event.

When kimjang season starts, factories allow workers to take time off for the event. Kimjang requires a lot of work. People have to prepare all the ingredients needed for many different kinds of kimchi, such as cabbage kimchi, cubed radish kimchi, kimchi with salted fish and mustard leaf kimchi, just to name a few. Each household stores about 500 kilograms of kimchi in six to eight big jars. 

North Korea uses the word “battle” for important events. Along with rice-planting and the autumn harvest, kimjang is also on the list of “battles.” Workers in factories are required to meet their production target every day, but even the factories allow the workers to make kimchi during kimjang season. 

The government provides people with cabbage, a key ingredient of kimchi. Collective farms distribute cabbage to factories and enterprises, which deliver it to the houses of their workers by truck. The amount of cabbage may differ from year to year, but in general, one person is provided with 100 kilograms of cabbage. So, a family of four can receive 400 kilograms of cabbage. 

These days, South Koreans do not make lots of kimchi during kimjang. But in the North, a family of four typically prepares kimchi amounting to between 300 kilograms and 1 ton—a large amount that can last six months. Ms. Ahn explains more.

My mother used to marinate some fish like pollack or plaice a week before kimjang and later mixed the fermented fish with kimchi. People in North Hamgyeong Province put in pollack, while those in the South Hamgyeong region add plaice. Those in southern areas bordering South Korea prefer to use salted clams or shrimps. But the northern Ryanggang region never uses salted fish. Kimchi recipes vary, according to region. 

The Hwanghae and Pyongan provinces in the western part of North Korea put in salted anchovies or shrimps, while the Hamgyeong and Gangwon provinces on the east coast use fermented pollack or plaice. People in the inland areas, on the other hand, make kimchi without salted fish. While cabbage is supplied by the state, people need to get other ingredients such as red peppers, garlic and salted fish on their own. Families may use different ingredients, depending on their economic conditions, so kimchi flavors vary from family to family and from region to region. North Korea is also different from South Korea in the ways they store and ferment kimchi. 

Unlike South Koreans, who generally put kimchi in refrigerators, people in the North dig a big hole in the ground, place jars in the hole and tightly pile up kimchi inside the jars to prevent air from entering. Two days after putting the kimchi in the jars, well-off families add fish or meat broth to them so that the kimchi is fermented in the broth. Kimchi made in this way, with a lot of enzymes, is pleasantly tangy and cool, like the fizzy flavor of carbonated drinks. That’s what differentiates North Korean kimchi from South Korean kimchi. 

A great many South Korean people live in apartment complexes and they naturally use refrigerators as a means of storing their kimchi. But North Koreans usually dig a hole in the yard and keep their kimchi in jars, which they call “kimchi storage.” Those who live in apartments use a community storage shared by residents. In some cases, they lock the door of the storage room to prevent theft. 

After storing kimchi in the jars, North Koreans pour pork or pollack broth over it to ferment the watery kimchi. The broth is effective in saving the kimchi for a long time and also adds flavor to the traditional pickle that has a distinctively sharp and fresh taste. After eating the kimchi, noodle or rice can be put in the remaining liquid for another delicious meal. 

Of course, it is impossible to make such large amounts of different kinds of kimchi alone. Relatives or friends set the date of kimjang and get together at one of their houses. In addition, neighbors also help each other out during this time. 

As I said, kimjang involves much work, from cutting radishes and green onions and crushing the garlic to mixing the ingredients and putting the filling between each leaf of cabbage. People in the same neighborhood exchange labor to help each other during kimjang. Although it may be laborious work, kimjang is actually a happy occasion when neighbors gather to make kimchi and share other delicious food as well. 

In the old days, kimjang was like an exciting party for villagers. With cabbage piled up very high, women in the village worked together in a cheerful mood. When they finished the job, they shared boiled pork wrapped in the crispy kimchi they had just made. Today, the tradition is still alive and well in North Korea. 

North Korea’s kimchi-making practice was inscribed on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage items in 2015. South Korea’s kimjang culture received the same UNESCO recognition earlier, in 2013. We hope people in the two Koreas will carry out the kimjang project together some day to share the precious tradition and have a wonderful time together.

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