How my mom, my sister and a dose of K-drama were the ingredients I needed to start making ferments.
It would be safely ensconced in a brown paper bag. Inside a recycled pasta sauce bottle was the sour, slightly spicy, and nose-crinkling goodness of kimchi. It started with our mom, a K-drama fan for many years, even pre-Netflix and pre-pandemic. She consumed many hours watching the likes of Jewel in the Palace and Green Rose, and became no stranger to Korean food. She started making kimchi after getting hold of a recipe from a neighbor. Soon, she started including a jar of it along with the bag of fruits, veggies, and seafood she would send me.
My sister Mabi (one-third of Starter Sisters), who’s vegan, also started making a vegan version. (Baechu kimchi, the traditional Napa cabbage kimchi, calls for fish sauce and fermented salted shrimp–as far as Maangchi goes. And I trust Maangchi.) Eventually, my mom started making hers vegan as well. She relied on my sister for the kimchi paste (the porridge mixed with the spices). In turn, I relied on them for kimchi whenever I wanted an easy source of probiotics, and not just out of craving. Then the pandemic hit. It ushered the world of K-drama–and fermentation–into my life.
Like the rest of the world, I was stuck at home. Working remotely while watching over my six-year-old who had online school to get used to, I turned to K-drama (and illustrating) to celebrate surviving the end of each work week. And as my appreciation for Korean storytelling grew, so did my cravings for Korean food.
Korean food in K-dramas
In Reply 1988, watching the stories of the five childhood friends living in Ssangmundong neighborhood was as heartwarming as watching the ajummas put all the dishes on the table for their families (oh, the many banchans!) or gather outside their homes to prep a huge bowl of soybean sprouts or make several trays of dumplings together.
In the medical drama Hospital Playlist, while it also explored the themes of friendship and family (like Reply 1988), I sat up at attention when the doctors ate lunch together or had dinner at the end of a long work week (I feel you!). They would munch on kimbaps between their rounds or have a proper meal and chat in front of a hot pot of kalguksu or the grill some samgyeopsal-gui in the evening.
My Mister, a beautiful and compelling Korean series (so far, my all-time favorite K-drama, up there with Reply 1988) can be melancholic and moody in tone and the themes it explores. But there was always something uplifting in almost each episode and until the very end (oh, the ending!). The scenes where the brothers drink and eat in Jeong-hui’s bar or when Park Dong-hoon and Lee Ji-An dined together in Kojubang restaurant were always a joy to watch. And made me crave for soju.
All of these series and more made me want to have as many side dishes to also serve my family. I wanted to snack on kimbap, slurp some noodles, and have some savory Korean pancakes or other anju (drinking snacks).
Starting with kimchi
According to FoodNavigator-Asia, in 2020, Korea saw an increase in its agri-food exports to other countries. Even the exports of condiments like gochujang increased by more than 25%. According to the Korean Food Promotion Institute, the Philippines saw an 80% increase in Korean restaurants from 2014 to 2018. We only need to look at the samgyupsal joints everywhere to know this to be true.
However, ordering Korean food every time I had a craving wasn’t the most economically sound decision. So I started asking my sister for more kimchi. It was familiar and I could eat it with many Filipino dishes. If I didn’t have time to prepare a salad or cook a vegetable dish after six consecutive Google meetings, I could easily serve a heaping of kimchi on the side. I could also turn it into kimchi pancakes or even put it in sandwiches. (Grilled cheese has never been the same again). I had started eating kimchi almost every day. I’m convinced that I haven’t had any acid reflux flare-ups, which I used to have often, because of its probiotics.
Mabi, always the encouraging sister, eventually sent me kimchi paste the way she did for my mom to so that I could easily make kimchi. I didn’t have to cook rice porridge and blitz onion, garlic, and ginger. I just needed to salt, rinse, and drain the cabbage. Mix the paste with Korean pepper flakes and fish sauce (or soy sauce for the vegan version) and mix everything with the cabbage and other sliced veg. (Find the recipe here.)
Time to ferment
I started making kimchi one early Saturday morning, while my husband and son were still fast asleep. I was never really a morning person, that is until I had my son. By then, early mornings became a precious time for me. It was a rare hour (or two if I’m lucky), when I could reconnect with myself before my son and my work demanded all my attention. I could focus on reading quietly, draw, awkwardly follow Youtube yoga, or make something good for me like kimchi.
By the time they woke up, I had three jars on the countertop ready to ferment. And in the next few days, I would open the lid and watch the kimchi bubble away. I imagined the microbes were having a grand time breaking down the sugars and starches. When they had calmed down after a few days, done with all the partying, smelling like proper kimchi and sour as I like it, I transferred them to the refrigerator. (You can find tips on how to have a successful home ferment, here.)
Only this year have I started sending some homemade kimchi to my sister, my mom, and a few friends to see how they find it. I also make my own kimchi paste and just store the excess in the freezer for the next batch of kimchi. I’ve also made kkakdugi or radish kimchi and cucumber kimchi. However, since the former has a more offensive smell (it clears the room when I open a jar) and the latter has to be consumed within the week, I don’t make them as often.
Beyond kimchi, I know I would have to make a childhood favorite soon–a fermented staple in Kapampangan spreads–buro. Burong mustasa is easy enough. All I need are fellow ajummas to sit and prep the veg with. Starter Sisters can be a start.