This is the saga of a Korean family who over time, ended up in Japan where they faced serious prejudice and discrimination. The family’s story begins in Busan, Korea, with Hoonie, born with a cleft palate and a twisted foot; and his parents, an aging fisherman and his wife. When Japan annexed Korea in 1910, things became economically dire for many Koreans. Hoonie’s family fared better than most because they had taken in boarders to supplement their meager income. These were the unlikely circumstances that brought Hoonie a wife. Ordinarily, a family would not arrange a marriage with someone like Hoonie for fear of passing along his abnormalities to his offspring. But when the colonial authority’s land surveys cost a tenant farmer the lease on his farm, and there was nothing left for his four daughters, it became expedient to reduce the number of mouths to feed in the family. No one was more surprised to see the matchmaker at her door than Hoonie’s mother. The matchmaker had come with an offer of the youngest farmer’s daughter, Yangjin, who was reportedly well-mannered and obedient, and the easiest of the four to get rid of. Yangjin and Hoonie met on their wedding day, and their relationship grew into a loving one over the years. The one sour note was that Yangjin miscarried three times before finally giving birth to a daughter, a survivor named Sunja. We follow Sunja’s family forward into 1989.
Since it is a story of a family, love and how it is expressed is certainly one of the themes of the book. When Sunja was very young, her first love blew her away, as only first loves can. When Min Jin Lee describes those early encounters, I was transported back to my own teenaged first love: how all-consuming it was, how nothing else I had ever experienced felt like it. How the feeling lit me up and warmed me from inside out. After seeing him again years later, Sunja, too was reminded of those feelings. “Yet here was the same face-the one she had loved so much. She had loved his face the way she had loved the brightness of the moon and the cold blue water of the sea.”
The goodness of two characters in the book embody the beauty. The first, Hoonie, Sunja’s father, was a truly good man who was respected by everyone in his village. He was so revered that no one took notice of his limp or his lip. He doted on his daughter as if she had hung the moon, and Sunja thrived in that loving environment for the first 13 years of her life, until his death from tuberculosis, a scourge in Korea and Japan in the early twentieth century. The other, Kyunghee was married to Yoseb who was Sunja’s husband’s brother. They all lived together in Osaka, Japan. Kyunghee and Yoseb were childless, which was a major heartbreak to them both, but they were devoted to their nephews, Sunja’s children. Kyunghee is the embodiment of goodness. She exudes goodwill, and because of her optimistic personality, people were drawn to her. Her loyalty to her family during dark times was inspirational, and I marveled at the author’s ability to create a sympathetic and interesting character that was anything but insipid, in spite of her seemingly boring goodness. Perhaps that was due, in part, to the reader being privvy to Kyunghee’s internal struggles as she forged her way to an ethical, principled and loving life.
Sunja and her sister-in-law, Kyunghee, at one point, make kimchi for Sunja to peddle at the local open market while Kyunghee looks after Sunja’s youngest child at home. Sunja makes a success of the venture, and is able to support her extended family when her husband is unable to work. I had never had kimchi, although it seemed like something I would like with my affinity for pickles and salty, savory dishes. With probiotics being much in the news and the subject of many recent books, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to try a new, exotic dish. The only off-putting thing was the infamous smell. I delayed making it until after we hosted for dinner friends with sensitive noses. In reality, the sealed jars of the fermenting kimchee in the refrigerator did not exude a powerful smell at all.
1 head (1.5 to 2 pounds) napa cabbage or green cabbage, cut into 2 by 1-inch pieces (reserve 2-3 large leaves, uncut). You can also substitute bok choy in place of cabbage.
4 T kosher salt
2-3 large cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
1 tsp sugar (alternatively, use 1 apple or pear, thinly sliced)
3 tablespoons Korean chile pepper flakes or paste (gochugaru). If you don’t live near a Korean market and can’t find this at your regular grocery store, 1 tablespoon of Sriracha, in a pinch. Do not substitute red pepper flakes; they are much spicier than gochugaru.
4 green onions, green parts only, cut into 1-inch pieces (optional)
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced (about ¼ cup) (optional)
Optional: a few large carrots, thinly sliced
For extra hotness: add 1 chili pepper (doesn’t need to be gochugaru) I used serrano.
Yield: I used carrots, onions, and a chili pepper and got 1¾ quart jars.
Wash all vegetables and pre-measure all of your ingredients.
Place the cabbage in a large bowl and sprinkle with 4 tablespoons of kosher salt. Massage the cabbage for a couple of minutes to start the wilting. Cover the large bowl and allow its contents to sit at room temperature for about an hour until the cabbage has wilted As it wilts, the cabbage will release around a ¼ cup of liquid.
While the cabbage is wilting, combine the garlic, ginger, chili pepper, carrots, if using them, and sugar (or the apple or pear) in the food processor.
Process the mixture until it forms a rough paste, around 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides of the bowl to incorporate all ingredients.
Once the cabbage has wilted, drain it, set the liquid aside to pour over the cabbage in the jars, and pat the leaves dry. Thoroughly mix the cabbage with the paste. This is your basic kimchi mixture.
Pack the kimchi tightly into the mason jars. Slide a knife down the inside of the jars to remove air pockets. Add equal amounts of the liquid to each jar, making sure that each has at least an inch of headspace (If needed, add some water to the jars to make sure the kimchi is completely covered by liquid. Use filtered water as chlorine will affect the fermentation. Press the mixture down firmly using the wooden spoon, so that the brine covers the top. Cover the kimchi in each jar with one of the reserved large cabbage leaves.
Seal the jars. Use metal lids because plastic will retain the smell of the cabbage. Let them sit at room temperature (65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit) for three to five days. Taste the kimchi every few days; it will be ready when it has developed a sour, spicy taste and a texture resembling that of sauerkraut.
When the kimchi is ready, remove the big cabbage leaves from the top of each jar and store the jars (tightly sealed) in the fridge. The kimchi should keep for several months.
When I made the soup, I finally broke down and ordered the Korean chili paste (gochujang) and Korean chili powder (gochugaru) online. So, while my kimchi isn’t as authentic as it could be, the soup that I made with it was.
Korean Kimchi Stew (Kimchi Jjigae)
¼ lb. skinless pork belly, cut into bite size pieces
1 T rice wine (mirin)
3 sprinkles ground black pepper
¾ cup aged Kimchi (at least 2 to 3 weeks old), cut into bite size pieces if not already
¼ small onion, thinly sliced
½ stalk small green onion, thinly sliced
4 small shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, thinly sliced
5 oz tofu sliced into 1 inch rectangles, or other shapes you may prefer
1 C vegetable stock
Jjigae base (mix these in a bowl)
1 T Korean chili flakes (gochugaru)
1 T soy sauce
1 tsp Korean chili paste (gochujang)
¼ tsp minced garlic
3 sprinkles ground black pepper
Marinate the pork belly with the rice wine and the ground black pepper for about 15 mins.
Heat a pan. Saute the marinated pork belly until lightly browned, about five minutes. Add the onion and saute until it is transparent. Add mushrooms, the jjigae base and stir to incorporate the ingredients and bloom the spices, about 30 seconds. Add the kimchi and vegetable stock.
Boil on medium high heat initially then reduce the heat to a simmer once it starts boiling, and cook 15 to 20 minutes Make sure the sauce is well blended into the rest of the ingredients. Turn the heat off, add the green onion. Serve with rice.