I Tried Kimjang! Korean Kimchi Making Day Is Tough But Fun

Come wintertime, families across Korea engage in the beloved tradition of kimjang (or gimjang) – a kimchi making day where Koreans communally prepare batches of healthy kimchi for the winter months ahead. I joined in this decades-old Korean custom that centres around people filling napa cabbages with various fermented seasonings and ingredients to create Korea’s iconic side dish, kimchi.

I was invited to participate in this day of kimchi making and kimchi eating with a family in Daejeon in late November as they were getting ready to fill their kimchi fridge with fresh kimchi for the year ahead. Yes, Koreans have a whole refrigerator dedicated to storing just one dish! That’s how much is made during kimjang day.

In this article I want to share my experience of making kimchi in Korea, as well as pass on some cultural insights and information about this arduous day of cabbage cutting and stuffing. If you’re interested in trying kimjang yourself, I’ll also tell you about where you can try it in Seoul and other places in Korea.

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What Is Kimjang And Why Did I Do It?

Man making kimchi with baechu cabbage
Cabbage prepared for kimjang

What is kimjang? kimjang is a Korean cultural tradition where families gather in late autumn or early winter to make large batches of kimchi together. During kimjang, ingredients like napa cabbage are chopped, salted, and seasoned before being stored to ferment and eat during the colder months.

Koreans don’t just use napa cabbages, however, there are over 200 hundred types of kimchi that can be made, including mul kimchi (water kimchi), baek kimchi (white kimchi), pa kimchi (spring onion kimchi) and more. All are great Korean banchan. When I joined kimjang, we made 3 different types of kimchi in one day.

When is kimjang? There is no set date for kimchi making day in Korea, but it’s traditionally around late November or early December when the temperature drops below zero degrees. This is apparently the ideal condition to make kimchi and weather reports in Korea will alert people when to start kimjang.

November 22nd is designated as Kimchi Day in Korea, but this isn’t a set date for making kimchi, more a day where the cultural importance of kimchi is celebrated. Some US states have even started to adopt Kimchi Day on the same day in recognition of Korean communities in the US.

Why did I join kimjang? kimjang is a traditional cultural event that centres around the family working together to prepare food for the winter ahead. I was able to do kimjang like a local as I joined my girlfriend’s family on this special day for the first time this November. I’d never done it before.

This experience was interesting, but also physically and culturally intense. Joining Korean family events as an insider opens up a different view of what is essentially a day of food prep and one of the benefits of dating in Korea. I hope to share some of these insights with you in this article

Joining these experiences is hard for foreigners in Korea, even those who live here as expats or students, unless you have some nice Korean friends. However, if you want to get your hands covered in red paste, you can experience making kimchi at the Seoul Kimchi Academy in Seoul. More details on that later.

The Kimjang Experience: How To Make Kimchi

Man making kimchi on kimchi making day
Getting messy on kimchi making day

I’ve got a confession to make. I didn’t do everything needed to make kimchi this kimchi making day. Some steps were done by other people both before I arrived and on another day. That’s because modern kimjang can involve a few shortcuts to make things easier. After all, modern life is busy and time is precious!

There are a few things to prepare before you start making kimchi onkimjang, such as buying the ingredients, making the sauce, and cutting up the cabbages. As well as this, you’ll need a big area to prepare the kimchi with lots of newspapers down to stop the bright red sauce staining everything.

Traditionally, Koreans prepare the ingredients for kimjang throughout the year, collecting seafood in spring, sea salt and chili peppers in summer, and the cabbages, spring onions, radishes and other ingredients in autumn. These ingredients are fermented (seafood) and dried out (chili peppers) throughout the year.

Honestly though, I don’t think Koreans really collect all those things in each season, and most people purchase them closer to the time. That’s why the price of ingredients for kimchi making tend to shoot up in late November. I was told the price of oysters (for geotjeori) was three times higher than normal right now!

Step 1: Prepare The Cabbage

This step is best done the night before kimjang as the baechu cabbages need time to soak and dry out so they’re ready to be covered in the spicy sauce that turns them into delicious kimchi. Each cabbage should be cut into quarters and soaked in salty water. This helps make them soft and easy to pull apart and also removes impurities and excess water.

In the morning, take the cabbages out of the water, wash them thoroughly, and put them somewhere sunny to dry. My girlfriend’s mum got up at 6am to do this. I was busy sleeping at this time, saving energy for the rest of the kimchi making process.

Baechu cabbage prepared for kimchi making day

Step 2: Make The Marinade

This is probably the most important step for a successful kimjang. If you don’t have the perfect marinade to coat the cabbages with, your kimchi won’t bring a bite of joy to every meal throughout the year. Fortunately, I wasn’t involved in making the marinade, so it was perfect!

The marinade is made of a range of ingredients (more details later) that typically include red chili pepper powder, garlic, spring onions, pear, fermented fish, rice paste, and ginger. my girlfriend’s mum was in charge of mixing a giant metal bowl of marinade, adding in generous helpings of the various ingredients to get it sweet yet spicy. It’s a family recipe that’s been perfected through dozens of kimchi making days.

Marinade for kimchi making

Step 3: Marinade The Cabbages

This is the heart of kimjang and the toughest part where you really earn the big meal that’s waiting for you at the end. To marinade the cabbages, you’ll need a big metal bowl that is big enough to hold the cabbage spread out. Start with a large dollop of kimchi marinade in the bottom of the bowl and then slap your cabbage on top of it so that you coat the outside.

So far, so easy, but next up is the tricky part and one that takes a long time. Lift the cabbage up and separate each leaf, laying the first leaf down on the bottom of the bowl. Massage a generous helping of the sauce onto the leaf, then place the next leaf down and do the same. Keep doing this until the whole cabbage has a layer of marinade between each leaf and around the outside.

Tip: Make sure you get all the ingredients (spring onions, radish, etc.) between each leaf, not just the sauce.

Making kimchi by hand during gimjang

Step 4: Store The Kimchi

After a couple of hours of back-breaking marinading, with the occasional thumbs up from my girlfriend’s mum for encouragement, all of the kimchi was safely placed in boxes, ready to start fermenting in the kimchi fridge. Historically, kimchi was stored in stone pots and buried outside, but the neighbours might steal it if we did.

Before I put each one into the box, I had to wrap the kimchi in a special way, which I never knew about until I joined this kimchi making day. Using the outer leaf of the cabbage, you need to gently wrap it around the bottom of the cabbage and then tuck it around the front.

The cabbages are stored facing up, as in the outside of the cabbage is facing the bottom of the box, except for the last ones, which go face down. We packed in some radish kimchi with the cabbage kimchi as they can ferment together and it fits in nicely at the side.

Handmade baechu kimchi and radish kimchi

Step 5: Make Other Kimchi

The main star of the kimjang show is baechu kimchi, but there are many other types of kimchi you can make at the same time. We made 3 different types of kimchi on this day, including one that we ate for dinner.

The first type was baechu kimchi, which is the kimchi you most commonly see in Korean restaurants and the one you use for a kimchi slap. The second type was radish kimchi, which is also very common in Korean restaurants and cut into bite-sized chunks that are more like sliced apples. The third type was baechu geotjeori kimchi, which is a non-fermented kimchi that you can eat fresh. This fresh kimchi is the one we ate for dinner after a long afternoon making kimchi.

Geotjeori fresh kimchi

Step 6: Share Dinner Together

After a hard day’s work making kimchi, we were all tired and ready for a big meal. Korean’s typically eat boiled pork slices, called suyuk (수육) in Korean, after kimjang with a big helping of fresh geotjeori kimchi. This is one of my favourite traditional Korean dishes and I definitely recommend it wrapped in lettuce leaves (bossam).

While my girlfriend and I were marinading an endless supply of cabbages (36 wrapped pieces in total, but it felt like 100), her mum was preparing dinner for everyone. This dinner was certainly the best part of kimjang and a welcome reward for everyone’s hard work. There’s nothing like tucking into freshly prepared kimchi. And of course we had to wash it down with some makgeolli.

Steamed pork with kimchi and rice

My Thoughts On Kimjang

Overall, it was a really interesting experience making kimchi with my girlfriend’s family. We all worked hard to make several boxes of kimchi that will be eaten throughout the year. I got to take a box home for myself (although my girlfriend will probably steal it all) and I look forward to that fresh kimchi smell in the fridge!

Kimchi making day certainly is a time when everyone comes together and the camaraderie and teamwork that I found through kimjang was a welcome reward for all the hard work. My back was quite stiff for a couple of days after sitting on the floor filling dozens of cabbages with the family’s secret sauce. but it was worth it.

I’ll never forget my girlfriend’s mum using her limited English to direct me to put more sauce on the leaves while commenting how much of a natural I am at making kimchi throughout the day. Her regular thumbs ups while my gloved hands were wrist-deep in kimchi seasoning gave me the motivation to keep on going.

It’s little things like being fed boiled pork slices as I wrapped the cabbages, preparing the table and cleaning up together, and everyone being involved that made it a very memorable day of my life in Korea. It’s not something that I’d want to do often as it’s hard work, but I’d definitely do it again next year.

To help sum up my thoughts on the cultural aspects of kimchi making day, I asked DALL-E 3 to create an image of kimjang that shows everyone working together. What do you think? Does it look right? Check out the next section of this article to learn more about the cultural and historic aspects of kimjang.

AI representation of Korean kimchi making day
AI representation of Korean kimchi making day

History & Origins Of Kimjang

Stone pots used for storing kimchi after gimjang
Stone pots used to store kimchi.

Since 2013, kimjang has been recognised as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, demonstrating the importance of kimchi making day for Korean culture. It’s not just a practical day of food production, it’s a shared experience that reflects Korea’s traditional values.

The origins of kimchi making date back centuries as a way to preserve vegetables without refrigeration during Korea’s harsh winters. Neighbours would make large amounts of kimchi collectively to share. Over time, kimjang became a family tradition, with recipes and techniques passed down through generations.

While modern refrigeration allows year-round kimchi today, some Korean families still honour their heritage by coming together each winter for kimjang. It’s an opportunity to bond across generations while ensuring a supply of homemade kimchi is stocked in kimchi refrigerators. And homemade kimchi is the best kind of kimchi!

Box of prepared cabbages for gimjang in Korea
Box of prepared cabbages for kimjang

The tradition highlights values of community, cooperation, and shared work while celebrating Korean food traditions. I would say that these values are still strong in Korea today, even if kimjang’s popularity is waning. Community and cooperation are key facets of Korean culture and etiquette and can be seen in many places.

Unfortunately, the practice of kimjang isn’t as common as it was in previous decades as Koreans have moved away from their hometowns and spend less time with their family except during big holidays. I think this is reflective of how many societies spend less time as a family and not just a Korean issue.

See how kimchi is made in this interesting video that explores the cultural and historic roots of kimjang.

Kimjang, making and sharing kimchi in the Republic of Korea

What Ingredients Are Used For Kimjang?

Korean families may have their own recipe for kimjang, but most of them will use a standard set of ingredients as a base for the marinade and then add in extra ingredients or use different quantities of the standard ingredients. I don’t want to spoil the family secret, so here are the typical kimchi marinade ingredients for kimjang.

Gochugaru (고추가루) – dried chili pepper flakes: This is the heart of the kimchi marinade and the ingredient that gives it a deep red colour. Add as much as you can handle.

Maneul (마늘) – garlic: Koreans love garlic and Korea is one of the countries that eats it the most. Loads of garlic cloves are crushed and added into the kimchi marinade.

Saeng-gang (생강) – ginger: Another popular ingredient in Korean cooking, ginger is both healthy and delicious and gives the kimchi it’s basic taste.

Pa (파) – spring onions: Finely chopped spring onions are added into the sauce and placed between the leaves. This gives the kimchi a crunchy texture and added flavour.

Mu (무) radish: As with the spring onions, these are chopped into small parts and added between the cabbage leaves. We used grounded radish instead of chopped radish.

Bae (배) – pear: Korean pears are gigantic, crunchy, and quite different from pears I’m used to from England. When they’re grounded and added to the sauce, they bring a good amount of sweetness.

Seol-tang (설탕) – sugar: An easier way to add sweetness to the kimchi marinade is through spoonfuls of sugar. The mixture of sweet and spicy is quite common in Korean cooking and is called yangnyeom (양념).

Chap-ssal-pul (찹쌀풀) glutinous rice paste: this white sauce is an essential ingredient to help with the fermentation process along with the fermented seafood ingredients. It helps the growth of bacteria in kimchi.

Saeu-jeot (새우젓) – fermented shrimp: These minuscule shrimp are commonly used as a seasoning for dishes and are really salty. They’re used to help the kimchi ferment and give it a strong, rich and sour taste.

Gganari-aeg-jeot (까나리액젓) – fermented anchovy sauce: As with the fermented shrimp, this fish sauce adds a rich taste to the marinade and contributes to the high level of health benefits of kimchi.

So-geum (소금) – salt: Used to bring out the flavour of kimchi. You don’t need too much if you’re using lots of fermented shrimp or anchovy sauce.

The quantities of these ingredients will vary depending on how much kimchi you’re making, which can range from a few cabbages to dozens. Here’s a simple kimchi recipe you can use to make a batch of kimchi at home.

How To Make Vegetarian Kimchi

If you want to make kimchi that’s vegetarian or vegan-friendly, you can use all of the above ingredients, but leave out the fermented shrimp and anchovy sauce. Unfortunately, this takes away the strong savoury taste that kimchi is known for, so you’ll need to replace them with alternative ingredients, such as vegetable stock or soy sauce.

For those who prefer to make kimchi without seafood, here’s a recipe for vegan kimchi that you can use when you try kimjang at home. It’s worth being aware of kimchi’s seafood ingredients if you’re travelling in Korea and want to eat only vegan-friendly food. Most restaurants will serve non vegan-friendly kimchi.

How To Experience Kimjang In Korea

Person making kimchi on gimjang

I’ll be honest, it’s not going to be easy to persuade a typical Korean family to let you join them for kimjang, but you might be lucky if they think the offer of free help is better than having a stranger in their house. Fortunately, there are other options to try kimchi making when you’re in Korea. Here are few ways you can try making kimchi:

Visit the Museum Kimchikan in Seoul: If you’re visiting Seoul, there’s an excellent museum dedicated to the world of kimchi in Insadong called Museum Kimchikan. Groups that want to experience kimchi making can contact the museum one day in advance to try kimjang. I recommend calling 1330 (tourist support) in Korea to do this.

Join a kimchi making class in Seoul: There are regular classes in Seoul that will introduce you to the world of kimjang, such as those run by the Seoul Kimchi Academy. Here you can try making kimchi with pre-prepared cabbages and learn about the history and culture of Korean kimchi at the same time.

Here are a couple of classes to learn how to make kimchi in Seoul:

If you’re from Singapore, there’s an authentic kimchi making class in Singapore that you can join.

Experience a kimchi making event at Songtan Market (Pyeongtaek): For expats in Korea or tourists who are visiting in early December, there’s an authentic kimchi making experience happening at a traditional market in Pyeongtaek. This 2-day event will take you through the whole kimjang process and includes meals and snacks.

You can find out more about this event from this South of Seoul blog post. It’s just $25 and designed to introduce people to local Korean culture and customs.

Planning to visit Korea? These travel essentials will help you plan your trip, get the best deals, and save you time and money before and during your Korean adventure.

Visas & K-ETA: Some travellers to Korea need a Tourist Visa, but most can travel with a Korean Electronic Travel Authorisation (K-ETA). Currently 22 Countries don’t need either one.

How To Stay Connected: Pre-order a Korean Sim Card or a WiFi Router to collect on-arrival at Incheon Airport (desks open 24-hours). Alternatively, download a Korean eSIM for you travels.

Where To Stay: For Seoul, I recommend Myeongdong (convenient), Hongdae (cool culture) or Gangnam (shopping). For Busan, Haeundae (Beach) or Seomyeon (Downtown).

Incheon Airport To Seoul: Take the Airport Express (AREX) to Seoul Station or a Limo Bus across Seoul. Book an Incheon Airport Private Transfer and relax to or from the airport.

Korean Tour Operators: Tour companies that have a big presence in Korea include Klook, Trazy, Viator, and Get Your Guide. These sites offer discounted entry tickets for top attractions

Seoul City Passes: Visit Seoul’s top attractions for free with a Discover Seoul Pass or Go City Seoul Pass. These passes are great for families and couples visiting Seoul – you can save lots.

How To Get Around: For public transport, grab a T-Money Card. Save money on Korea’s high speed trains with a Korea Rail Pass. To see more of Korea, there are many Rental Car Options.

Travel Money: Use money exchanges near Myeongdong and Hongdae subway stations for the best exchange rates. Order a Wise Card or WOWPASS to pay by card across Korea.

Flights To Korea: I use flight comparison sites such as Expedia and Skyscanner to find the best flights to Korea from any country. Air Asia is a good option for budget flights from Asia.

How To Learn Korean: The language course from 90 Day Korean or Korean Class 101 both have well-structured lessons and lots of useful resources to help you learn Korean.

Kimchi Making Day FAQs

Finally, here are a few FAQs about winter in Korea, in case the above information didn’t cover enough for you. If you have any other questions you’d like to ask, feel free to leave a comment.

When is kimjang typically held?

kimjang is traditionally held in late November or early December. The start date is said to be the moment the weather reaches zero degrees Celsius, which occurs in early winter.

How is kimchi made during kimjang?

Kimchi is made through a 5 step process during kimjang that involves first cutting and soaking the cabbages, drying the cabbages the next day, preparing the marinade, placing the marinade onto each leaf of the cabbage, and then storing the kimchi in a sealed container or stone pot.

What are the health benefits of kimchi?

Not only is kimchi rich in vitamins and nutrients, it’s also low in calories and super-charged thanks to the fermentation process it undergoes. It is said to improve gut bacteria, boost your immune system, and aid weight loss. The antioxidants in the chili peppers, garlic, and ginger are also said to reduce inflammation and slow ageing.

Do you need special equipment to make kimchi at home?

You don’t need special equipment to make kimchi at home, but if you want to make large quantities of kimchi, you will need appropriately large equipment like storage boxes, large metal bowls to mix the sauce in, as well as lots of storage space. You can use the normal equipment you’d use to cut vegetables, drain them, mix a marinade, and store prepared food.

Is kimjang still done in Korea?

Yes, there are many Korean families that still prepare kimchi together in winter in Korea. However, due to the increased availability of various types of kimchi and the ingredients needed to make kimchi, more families are buying kimchi ready made or making it in smaller batches throughout the year instead of on one day.

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About the author

Hi! My name is Joel, I'm the author of In My Korea and writer of this article. I've lived, worked and travelled in Korea since 2015 and want to share my insights, stories and tips to help you have the best experience during your trip to Korea.

I love learning more about Korean culture, hiking the many mountains, and visiting all the coolest places in Korea, both modern and traditional. If you want to know more about my story, check out the 'about me' section to learn why I love living in Korea.

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