North Star Journey

A modern spin on a Korean tradition: Kimjang in south Minneapolis

A man holds up a jar of kimchi
Douglas Choi holds inspects a jar of kimchi during a kimjang gathering at his house in Minneapolis on March 23.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

In Korea, people often get together for kimjang, a gathering to make large batches of kimchi, the traditional spicy fermented cabbage delicacy.

Recently, I joined about a dozen people gathered for kimjang at a house in south Minneapolis. Unlike traditional kimjang, most of the participants were complete strangers, albeit with a shared interest in kimchi. 

We rolled up our sleeves, pulled on gloves and got to work on the 14 cabbages at our disposal. 

Hands tear apart a napa cabbage
Sabrina Gonzalez tears a napa cabbage in half while making kimchi in Minneapolis.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The process is labor-intensive: we tore each cabbage in half and salted them all. Then we set them aside to let the salt draw the water out of the leaves.  

Next, we chopped vegetables and mixed them into the seasonings. And, of course, the fun part is done by hand. I could feel the heat from the thick spicy paste seep through my gloves as I churned the aromatic mixture in  the bowl. 

To Koreans, kimjang represents the spirit to survive tough times. You make yourself resilient. 

Neighbors would make kimchi together then store it for  the long harsh winter ahead. Without this preserved food, they wouldn’t survive. Nowadays, kimjang is usually a family affair. Of course, Kimchi is available in Minnesota grocery stores. But it can get pricey. 

People stand around tables and prep cabbages
Olivia Kurtz (left to right), Steve Moertel, Jamey Moertel and Matt Moertel get to work splitting a batch of napa cabbages, or baechu in Korean, during a kimjang gathering in Minneapolis.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Our south Minneapolis kimjang host was Douglas Choi. He started making his own kimchi as an experiment during the COVID-19 years. Post-pandemic, he wanted to get to know his community. He decided to ask strangers via social media to come to his house and make kimchi together.

Choi, 39, said newer generations are putting their own spin on some Korean traditions, including kimjang. 

“You get to form new contexts around that practice, and hold onto some of the things, but it just evolves,” he said. “I’m happy that had happened. And, I’m happy that we were able to kind of get that to work and I’m excited to sort of see where this goes.”

Supplies sit on a counter top
Bowls, measuring utensils and ingredients line the countertops of Douglas Choi’s kitchen in Minneapolis during a kimjang gathering.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

While I make kimchi, I think of my family: Halmoni, my grandma, and Umma, my mom, made kimchi together in big metal bowls, just like the ones in this south Minneapolis home. They’d feed my brother and me pieces straight from the bowl. 

I find it comforting making this dish with complete strangers new to kimjang.  

Everyone in the room has their own reasons for taking part. 

Vaughn Powell came with her friend, Alicia Jackson. Powell finds the communal act rejuvenating. 

Two people carry a large green tub of cabbages
As Alicia Jackson watches, Vaughn Powell and Matt Moertel transport a batch of salted cabbage to the kitchen after the resting phase of a kimchi-making party in Minneapolis.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“I was excited to see what it was like because I do a lot of cooking on my own, but I do it by myself as my own meditative process,” Powell, 32, said. “So, I was interested to see what it would be like to do that with other people. That’s not something that I’ve experienced before.”

Standing by her side, Jackson, 36, said kimchi and other fermented foods sometimes get a bad rap. 

“But, I think that age does something really, really inspiring to food,” she said. “Transforming it from what it was to what it could be. And I’m a big, big fan of what that becomes.”

A person holds a cabbage
Thirty-two-year-old Tony Muras-Scherber helps a group prep cabbages during a kimjang gathering in Minneapolis.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Across the room, Tony Muras-Scherber, 32, helps another group make kimchi. He and his brother are Korean adoptees. 

Making kimchi, Muras-Scherber said, is an act of reconnection. Plus, he loves the taste. 

“It kind of brings us a little bit more close to our culture and our heritage,” he said. “Doing these types of things, making Korean food and trying different Korean dishes that we normally would not have here in Minnesota and the Midwest.”

A person wears a hair net and stands at a table
MPR News senior reporter Hannah Yang presses spicy red chili paste into napa cabbages during a kimjang gathering in Minneapolis.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

After a couple of hours the salted cabbage is limp and ready for seasoning. Powell washes every leaf under running water to remove the remaining salt. Then we coat each one with the spicy seasonings.

Finally we squash the precious, multi-colored mush into the kimchi jars, and seal them.

Everyone takes a moment to admire the swirling hues of red and orange in the freshly-made kimchi, with Choi comparing it to “the whole galaxy.”

Hands load kimchi into jars
Kimjang participants pack the finished kimchi into jars for fermenting during a kimjang gathering in Minneapolis.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The next part of the process is to let it ferment in the fridge for a couple of weeks. 

I find out later that there may have been a mishap. We possibly put too much salt in the kimchi. But, I’m hoping that I can still use it for some dishes later this month. So, fingers crossed. 

Meanwhile, Choi is considering another kimjang in the future. 

Jars of kimchi sit on a counter top
Jars of kimchi lined the counter at the end of a kimjang gathering in Minneapolis.
Ben Hovland | MPR News
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