Kimchi

Courtesy: Kiki Kobayashi









(originally published in Exile Quarterly Magazine, Spring 2017)

for Edward Lee


At the kitchen counter, she is looking a little more desperate after the first bite. About the cabbage, her mother would say: be generous with the salt. But there was nothing to be done about a chile’s shortcomings. This time, she dips the stalky end of the nappa leaf into the pounded flakes and bites into it. No, it is not the cabbage—it is definitely the chile. She hurls the leaf into the sink. 
That fool!
Earlier in the day, the boy—Jeem or Jahn or whatever his silly Anglicized name was—had bullied her into buying last year’s crop of dried Korean chile peppers. He assured her they were as good as the current year’s, which had failed to arrive as he'd promised. Ever since the deacon passed away the previous winter without too much fuss or ceremony, his grocery store, now in the hands of his half-witted son, was in shambles. It didn’t take long before some of the deacon’s most devoted parishioners took their money across the street. The competitor, a Presbyterian, ran an adequate and—it was grudgingly admitted—honest business.
“Korean chiles never go bad,” the boy said, holding his hands up like the common criminal he was. “But if you want to wait, the new shipment should arrive in another week or so...Halmonee.” The groveling “grandmother” designation did little to endear him. She pursed her lips, shoved the chiles in with the other purchases, and hastily left the store without so much as saying goodbye. Besides, she could not wait “another week or so.” Her daughter Sera was due to arrive the following day with her Mexican fiancĂ©, Miguel, to observe gije with her, and the kimchi needed to be finished—like it had been, on time, every year for the past nineteen years. The deacon always made sure the arrival of the new crop of chiles from Korea coincided with the commemoration of her dead mother, and so, without them, she was left feeling unhinged.

Outside, the drop in air pressure ahead of the coming storm and the gusty October breeze rushed to her head. She put the grocery bag down on the sidewalk and propped herself up against the wall. In the store’s darkening window, she was not surprised to see the ghostly pallor of her skin and the dark bags under her eyes. She had always been the plain-looking one compared to her five older sisters, but knew her present appearance had something to do with the recent diagnosis of arrhythmia and all those damn pills. Her condition had taken a turn for the worse when Sera left in the summer to join Miguel in Ottawa, where he was a chef at some fusion restaurant. The heart attack happened in her suite three years before, within weeks of burying her husband, and Mrs. Cho never let her forget that if she hadn’t come barging in at just that moment, poor Sera would have been left an orphan.
She watched her face in the window as it slowly metamorphosed into that of her mother’s during those final days—serene in the ambient light of the bedside lamp. She blinked two or three times and tried to focus, but her mother gazed back at her with moist searching eyes.
“Halmonee, are you okay?” It was the boy again, holding out a tissue in his grimy hand. She waved it away, picked up her bag, and shuffled unsteadily toward the subway.


The day she saw Sera off at Union Station, she held on to the bannister in the stairwell until the flutters passed.
“I told you to stay home,” Sera said. “Doctor Kim wants you to slow down.”
“What does a doctor know?”
On the platform, after the final boarding call, her daughter held her for too long and sobbed on her shoulder. 
“Sera-yah, enough,” she said. “People are watching.” She shoved the doshirak into her arms, wrapped in the same embroidered silk her mother had passed down to her on her wedding day. It was filled with Sera’s favourite dishes: pan-fried tofu; spicy dried squid; seaweed rice rolls with canned tuna; and a side of kimchi.
“Ohm-ma…” Sera blubbered.
“Go, before you cry again. You’re too much like your father.”
“If you need me,” she said, “I’m just one train ride away.”
“Yes, yes, if I need you.”

Now, pacing back and forth in her kitchen, she curses the boy again under her breath. What is missing from the chiles is that smarting sweet linger that never failed to transport her back to the family farm in Andong. There, under a poplar grove aquiver with leaf shadows and the nippy breath of the late autumn breeze, she and her sisters would gather around their mother to make kimchi together. There was the usual gossip, blushing banter that only her married sisters could decode, and, of course, their mother’s exacting instructions. When the kimchi was finally put away into clay jars, and darkness had set in, they moved to the inner courtyard of the hanok and told ghost stories. Against the crackling light of the hearth, her sisters’ shadows mimed the movements of female gwishins—legless spirits with scraggly black hair and tattered smocks—that wandered the countryside to complete unfinished business before entering the underworld. By the end of it, she found herself clinging to her mother’s neck, so spooked that she vowed never to speak to her sisters again.
She dumps the rest of the infuriating chiles into the stone mortar and pounds the pestle harder than she should. When her heart starts to race, she stops. “Ohm-ma, what now?” She slides open the kitchen door and gingerly steps out onto the balcony to catch her breath. She pulls the dead leaves off the chrysanthemums on the railing. The wind has picked up and rain is falling in sheets over St. Joseph Church. The cemetery- where a prepaid plot awaits her between her parents and her husband- slopes like a giant camel hump behind it. She picks up the stainless steel bowl with the remaining quartered nappa cabbages in it and returns to the kitchen. Over the sink, she gently wrings the water from each leaf and rubs sea salt on them. You feel that? It’s much thicker here near the root. It needs more salt. Her mother’s voice hovers in the air behind her and by force of habit, without turning around, she responds: “Neh, Ohm-ma!”

Her mother’s love of salt came second only to her love of chile, and its over-consumption was attributed by Doctor Kim as the cause of the stroke and kidney failure in that final year. And while her sisters nodded acquiescently, she knew better. It wasn’t the salt that killed their mother, but the death of Yong-su, Sera's older brother, who, at the age of six months and fourteen days, died in his grandmother’s arms. He was left in her parent’s care soon after he was born so she and her husband could find work in the city. It was a simple abdominal infection gone horribly wrong, misdiagnosed from the beginning, and her mother never recovered from it—blaming herself for not taking him to the hospital sooner. He would be almost four years older than Sera now, buried at the base of a mountain near their village on the other side of the world. 

A loud knock on the door startles her. She stands as still as possible, stretching out the seconds in her head. She hopes Mrs. Cho will think she is not home and move on. 
“I know you’re back,” she calls through the mailslot. “I saw you walking past the rec room.” She dries her hands on a towel and walks to the hallway. After unlocking the door, she walks away, and says over her shoulder, “It’s open.” 
Mrs. Cho is wearing lime green aerobic tights, a pink t-shirt with a Playboy bunny on it, and white sneakers. Wrapped around her ankles are one-pound weights. Suddenly she is self-conscious about the nightgown and bedroom slippers she has on and silently accuses her neighbour for making her feel this way. She is holding a glass casserole pan wrapped in tinfoil. Recently, Mrs. Cho has been experimenting with strange foods from around the world. She can no longer endure eating three Korean meals a day from room trays while watching Korean soap operas with the others. “Slow death by distasteful food and dishonest feelings,” she calls it. So, after the Sunday afternoon Cooking Basics class, taught by a peppy student from the nearby culinary college, Mrs. Cho makes the same dish every day until the residents on her floor grow sick of it. This week it is Indian food.
“I thought Sera would like to try my butter chicken. I would also like Mikhail’s opinion on it, too.”
“His name is Miguel.”
“Oh, right.” Mrs. Cho puts the dish down on the coffee table. “My grandchildren couldn’t finish it yesterday.” She knows the truth, that like so many other times in the past, Mrs. Cho’s three children, in particular her divorced eldest son and his ten year-old twins, did not actually visit, but she asks anyway because she is annoyed by the intrusion: “How are the twins?” As soon as the words leave her mouth, she is ashamed of herself. She avoids eye contact and returns to the kitchen. Mrs. Cho follows behind and leans up against the refrigerator. 
“Oh, they’re fine. Very good kids. I don’t think they like the smell of Indian food very much.” She quickly changes the subject. “So, anyway, Mr. Kwak’s sister came by this morning. Remember her? The crazy man thought it was his wife returning from the dead and locked himself in the mop room. Poor girl- the look on her face. They really should move him to the Rose Of Sharon. I heard they recently built a special ward there for”—and here she twirls her index finger near her temple—“people like that. Everybody knows his mind is mushier than congee.” They burst out laughing at this. She knows that despite the trivial lies and loose-lipped personality, Mrs. Cho has a good heart.
“Would you like some tea, Mrs. Cho?”
“Can’t. I have a ping pong date with Park Jung-ho.” She is standing at the makeshift shrine, lighting a joss stick. “Looks lovely.”
“I think Mr. Park is in love with you.”
“He falls in love with anyone who will play ping pong with him.” 
“No, I mean it. He’s told me he thinks you are pretty.”
“Really?” She pauses. Then with girlish coyness: “he never said that.”
“He did. During karaoke on Tuesday. While you were singing “Soldier Of My Heart”. And he’s right, you know. You look so pretty when you’re up on stage.” Mrs. Cho stands at attention, salutes with her right hand, then goose-steps toward the hallway, breathing in sync with her raised ankles. At the door, she says in a near whisper: “I will say a prayer for you and your mother tonight.”
“Come by tomorrow. I know Sera will be very happy to see you.” 

Back at the kitchen counter, she finishes salting the cabbages and lays them out on a large baking tray. Time is running out and she has to move on to the anchovy paste. She empties a package of dried baby anchovies into a pot of simmering water. As a child, following behind her along the aisles of Geumnam Market, she was never certain which vendor would be the next casualty of her mother’s plucky words. Fish with no heads, what a waste. And you see that—yellow bellies are no good. So careless of these people to keep them out in the sun so long. 
With chopsticks, she picks out the headless and yellow-bellied ones from the pot and throws them into the organics bin. When the water rises to a boil, she pours the anchovy stock through a cheesecloth and into another pot holding the rice flour. She picks up a wooden spatula and exhales deeply. Even now, almost twenty years to the day of her mother’s passing, a debilitating anxiety comes over her during this part. Quick! Keep stirring! Don’t let it stick to the pot. Put it over here, on the counter. It was a family secret, passed down through generations, a process overlooked by the other mothers in the village. How many times had she and her sisters been told that the difference between a good kimchi and a great one lies in the consistency of the anchovy paste?

In Andong, they liked their kimchi the way they liked their men, in three distinct phases: fiery in their youth; vigorous through middle age; and a touch of acceptable sourness when they reached their prime. There was no mystery to how it was done well: local cabbage; fresh sun-dried chile peppers; a hardy sea salt; and a perfectly executed anchovy paste. In the cities, where they preferred their kimchi crisp as collared shirts and without the depth that anchovies gave it, her sisters referred to it as “Peter Pan kimchi”—immature and without lasting character. Afterward, they let the kimchi ripen in clay jars through a long and bitter winter, allowing it to achieve something close to the ideals of arranged marriage, and its only objective: family—each ingredient imparting its better qualities to become something more than itself.


In the livingroom, she lights the candles on the shrine. There is a framed black and white portrait of her mother, taken weeks after her wedding. Her hair is pulled back and bundled behind her neck with a long silver pin. She looks regal in her traditional silk hanbok, seated in front of a folding screen featuring mist-crowned mountains and cranes in flight. Her gaze is directed inward as though she is attending to some tiny movement in an uncharted part of her body.
She reads out her mother’s name, then kneels twice, her forehead touching overlapped hands on the floor. Each year she has had to remove yet another step in the ritual to simplify matters for Sera. From twelve steps for each dead ancestor, there is now just the kneeling and the burning of the paper tablet. She knows that when she too has passed from this world, Sera will have forgotten to teach her own children even these steps.
The phone rings and it’s Sera.
“Ohm-ma, we’re taking the last train out tonight. We should arrive around breakfast time.”
“Sera-yah, it’s too early.”
“Miguel wants to help.” She could hear his latin-inflected baritone voice in the background, encouraging her. “It’s too much for you.”
“Tell him I’m fine.” She scans the shrine, stacked with plates of dried fish, rainbow-coloured rice cakes, and apples. “Everything is finished.”
“Well, we’re coming anyway,” then after a pause, “Ohm-ma, Meehan-hae.”
“For what?”
“We should be visiting more,” she says, then sprightly: “and I miss you.” Sera, her sentimental daughter, who has never seen her mother shed a single tear, created too much in her father’s image.
“Okay, goodbye. I still have much to do.”

The winter they began dating, Sera wanted to teach herself how to make her own Korean dishes to impress Miguel. From the armchair, where she pretended to be knitting, she looked up frequently and longed for a plea for help that never came. When Sera was in the bathroom, she snuck a peek into the kitchen. There was a cookbook open on the counter, written by some second-generation Korean-American housewife. It saddened her to see a scale and all those measuring cups. Hadn’t her daughter been paying attention all these years? Didn’t she know that recipes were inscribed on the tongue, that portioning was a matter of taste, and that no cookbook could teach you any of this? That night, in bed, she worried about what would happen when she and Miguel were married. However, her anxieties were dispelled at Korean Thanksgiving when Miguel prepared a five-course dinner for the three of them—Mexican dishes he grew up eating on a farm with his family and other migrant workers just north of Toronto—and she saw there was some hope for their relationship. Here was this hulking stranger, whose accent made his sentences difficult for her to follow, navigating through her kitchen with self-assurance—dipping his finger into bowls, wafting fumes from a steaming pot into his nostrils. It pleased her to think that they shared at least this common language. 
Always be on the lookout for the finest ingredients around you. She rises from the sofa, puts on her slippers, and shuffles back to the kitchen. In the spice cabinet above the sink, there is a bag of dried ancho chiles, recently purchased at Las Americas. It was intended for a pot of beef and kidney bean stew for Miguel and Sera to take back with them, but she sees now that they could be put to better use. Ever since that dinner, she wondered about the chiles he used to make his mole. She liked the taste of them—they were pliable and slightly fruity, with surprising depth of flavour; not quite like fresh Korean ones, of course, but close enough. She hesitates, then adds a handful into the mortar. Through searing eyes, she pounds them and mixes them together with the stale Korean ones. When she is done, she adds the blended chiles into the anchovy paste with a cup full of shucked oysters. 

On the eve of her wedding, before she left her home for good to join her husband’s family, her mother lead her behind the miso shed and into her private alcove. Like her married sisters before her, she would be taught how to make kimchi properly. They said very little to each other, working in unison, and keeping their tremulous emotions at bay. After all the ingredients had been prepared and laid out on the table, her mother brought out something else, something she had never seen before: a plate of Miyagi oysters. Where her in-laws lived, along the coast that faced Japan, the locals put oysters in their kimchi. And although she had no taste for it herself, she knew that necessary small adjustments had to be made to please her new family. The next day, when her husband and in-laws arrived in the village to take her with them, her mother handed her a small clay jar of kimchi wrapped in embroidered silk, to be shared with her new family. When the kimchi was finished later that week—quicker than anticipated—she woke before sunrise the next morning and waited on the seashore for the first oyster boats to dock. 


In the final stage, she adds the minced garlic and ginger, julienned daikon radish, Korean chives, and scallions into the oyster-anchovy marinade. She mixes everything together with her bare hands, tasting as she goes along. It is smokier and sweeter than she is used to, but the Mexican chiles have done their job. She stuffs the ingredients in between the leaves of the cabbage and packs them tightly into three large plastic tubs. Sera will want to eat them right away, but Miguel will know better, will insist on letting the kimchi sit through the winter, fermenting in its own juices, until it is just right. 
She looks up at the clock on the wall: fifteen minutes past midnight. They will be here in five hours. She wraps a wool blanket over her shoulders and steps out on to the balcony. Mist-like rain drifts obliquely under a streetlamp and the blue tendrils of lightning in the distance bring to mind images on an electrocardiogram monitor. At the corner, four stories below, an amber light flickers on the slick surface of the street. When she hears light tapping behind her, she is expecting it, and turns around slowly. Ohm-ma…” There is a rustling like poplar leaves in the breeze and a vague longing seizes her. On the sliding glass door is a strange look from her own exhausted face and her outstretched palms. Over time, when she imagined her mother was still alive and the inevitable sadness set in, she found ways to cope by accepting her losses in the same way she accepted the gift of her daughter. She had no way of knowing how she found the strength, except when the deacon occasionally reminded her that it was never a question of ‘how’ but of ‘where’, as he turned his gaze to the heavens. She suppresses a sob in her throat. She closes her eyes and envisions a cab pulling up to the residence lobby. Sera leaps out of the back seat and waves wildly at her from the sidewalk. Within minutes, her daughter is catapulting through the front door, squealing with delight after seeing the tubs of kimchi on the hallway floor, and rushes at her, arms flung wide. Behind her, Miguel, her future son-in-law, covers the doorway, a basket of dried dates for the shrine in one arm; in the other, a bouquet of flowers—a good man. She sees all this playing out in her mind's eye, and when it is over, the images are replaced by cumulus clouds—thick tufts against a blue-black sky, flecked here and there with shivering stars. They are bunched together to resemble a cave, then a camel’s hump, then a rabbit standing on its hind legs. It all appears random, odd things that take shape in her head at this time of year. Only the gwishins seem to know what to do, where they are going. Her chest feels heavy and her temples throb, so she grips the balcony railing, gathering every will in her body to beat back some nameless need rising up in her. She turns her face eastward toward the lonely churchyard, and past it toward the horizon, waiting now, waiting for the first rays of light to break over it.

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