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What Kimchi Means to Me (and what it might not mean to you)

Many years ago, an owner and chef of a restaurant I really liked told me he made kimchi, and proceeded to describe his process. I didn't tell him exactly that I was offended by this recipe and his hubris, but he got offended by my reaction. Or perhaps he did not understand why I wasn't preening and fawning over his making kimchi. Well, I didn't think it was great. It felt as if he was feeling an ownership somehow of Korean food because he had made his way to making kimchi.


Kimchi has become the poster child for cultural appropriation and some sort of rite of passage Western cooks/chefs think they need to perform to prove bona fides. Well, let me set the record straight here, kimchi is not a means to your ends. It is not a trend for you to follow. Kimchi is foundational for me and perhaps the only thing I have left of my family. My parents are both dead and my aunt, who was my second mother, is also dead.


My aunt making nabak kimchi in her Bronx kitchen (2012)

Certainly, I am not going to save kimchi from your tacos and cream chesse dips. I am not going to save kimchi from fusion food. But everything is fusion, you say. No, my family's kimchi recipe is not. Is it flexible though? Yes, it is because we don't live in Korea anymore, and Korean foodstuffs were hard to come by on West 107th Street.

But mixing cream cheese and kimchi together and declaring it some sort of artisinal nouveau cuisine (for the easily led astray) is just wrong. So think twice when and curb your impulse to mixtrends with tradition.

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