Wake Up and Smell the Kimchi

~By Kate Sitarz

Learning to yield chopsticks with (some) refinement took around 2 months 5 days, or about 7 meals’ worth of dropped bulgolgi with a side of soy-stained ego. Developing a keenness for kimchi involved innumerable obnoxious grimaces and a forced taste bud evolution. Getting over kimchi breath required 3 packs of gum, a new toothbrush, and, eventually, indifference.

But adapting to a kimchi fragrance permeating in the house with a Febreze-like blanket of persistent perfume? 불가능한—out of the question.

After a half-year of dating, Joshua and I found an apartment and agree on all the essentials: never leave the sponge in the bottom the sink, always put the toilet seat down, and keep the heat at a money-saving (yet non-pipe-freezing) 60 degrees.

But after 8 months we can’t seem to figure out what to do with the kimchi.

So there it sits, on the top shelf of the fridge, surrounded by a mini fortress forged by Arm & Hammer in an effort to keep the food below uncontaminated. Yet not even multiple Ziploc bags and yards of doubled-up saran wrap (under, over and around the lid), can keep the smell—akin to a pickled subway station—from permeating the house. Upon opening the front door, it greets us with a thick, penetratingly pungent earthy aroma slicked over with a layer of fermented juice. It hugs our quasi-Korean home in a fragrant cabbage embrace. And it dives deep into my stomach, creating acidic swells of nausea.

I should have known what I was up against. The famed fermented Korean dish made with napa cabbage, radishes, cucumbers or some other such vegetables is the ubiquitous staple of numerous soups, stews, pancakes and rice dishes, and is served as a side with any and every meal. Born in Korea, Joshua has kimchi in his blood (and, yes, often on his breath). It’s a warm, welcoming, even comfortable scent—until you can’t remove it from clothes or get it to crawl out from its hiding place under the sheets, between the cushions and within the curtains. It fills the space between floorboards and seals the cracks between window and sill.

Like a good vintage that develops more complex flavors over time, kimchi acquires as stronger scent as it ages. Naturally, the more potent it is, the stronger the seasoning. And no matter how many windows are open or how many odor-eliminating candles are lit, there’s no match for the kimchi cloud. The smallest puffs of wind return the smell back inside as if to say, “Yeah right.”

But despite all my irritability toward a kimchi-scented apartment and inability to accept it as an adopted child, there’s enough fondness to render me incapable of stashing it away in its own minifridge. In the dank basement. Two dark floors below.

It’s like a permanent timeout for a food that would likely feel ashamed if it could understand its veggie odor. I picture it’s apologetic face, blushing red from embarrassment—or is it the red chili flakes?—with a helpless frown. “But I’m high in fiber and low in calories … ” it weakly offers before retreating back to its dimly lit corner.

Forums dedicated to eradicating kimchi’s lingering scent all come to the same conclusion: kimchi fridge. Whether it’s a dedicated fridge or a fridge specifically crafted for the odorless stashing and preserving of the fermented food, Korean moms everywhere agree on a separate receptacle. (Of course, the real Korean moms probably don’t notice—or care—about kimchi stench. Decay? Mold? Bring on the kimchi jjigae!).

Alas, I am not real Korean. Instead I eagerly clap my chopsticks in anticipation of the day I stop noticing the smell (though I’ll settle for a sustained toleration). In the meantime, I refresh the baking soda and reassure myself that by harboring tubs of one of the world’s healthiest foods, we’re making our home a healthier, albeit stinky, home.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Mike Johnson says:

    Wow, beautifully written. I can smell it even as I sit here, nowhere near kimchi. I think.

  2. funniechickfg says:

    I think many Koreans have a kimchi refrigerator. If you want to compartmentalize the smell, you could always buy a small refrigertor (like one that goes in a dorm room) and use that for your kimchi and other 반찬 that smells. 🙂

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