Making Kimchi at the Gwangju Kimchi Festival

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What is Kimchi?

For those not familiar with this stinky, fermented cabbage dish from South Korea – allow me to introduce it.

Made from vegetables (typically cabbage, but also radish, cucumber, and others) – this dish is made by allowing the vegetable to ferment in a mixture of brine, scallions, ginger, garlic, chili, fish sauce, and various other ingredients. Traditionally, this was done by putting the ingredients in a jar and burying it for the winter; although these days many Korean fridges even come with a drawer especially for making your own kimchi.

With each Korean eating an average of 18kgs of this spicy side dish a year, it amounts to a large chunk of their daily intake for vitamins, iron, and calcium. Some Koreans even go so far as to believe that kimchi cures everything from H1N1 (avian flu) to cancer to AIDS, although there’s been no proof of this.

Fans don’t kill you while you sleep either…

Nomadic American and a piece of lettuce (?) "Say Kimchi" together.
Nomadic American and a piece of lettuce (?) “Say Kimchi” together.

The food is so popular that “Say Kimchi” is the equivalent to saying cheese before taking a photo.

The Gwangju Kimchi Festival

Every year in October, the city of Gwangju (my former home of two years) holds the Gwangju World Culture Kimchi Festival – a celebration of all things kimchi.

As I’ve said in previous posts about Korean festivals, this is a country who will have a festival at the drop of a hat. These range from the beautiful (such as the Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival) to the decadent (such as the Boryeong Mud Festival) to the downright odd (such as the Slow Walking Festival).

As festivals go, however, the Kimchi Festival is a wonderful celebration of an iconic staple of the Korean diet.

The kimchi prep station before the foreigners descended on it and made a mess.
The kimchi prep station before the foreigners descended on it and made a mess.

As you would expect, the bulk of the festival is made up of kimchi, kimchi ingredients, kimchi making demonstrations, kimchi making lessons, and various characters wearing suits representative of kimchi ingredients.

There are also cultural activities, live music, and talent shows – as is pretty standard at any Korean festival.

Attending the 2013 Gwangju Kimchi Festival

It’s hard to believe it’s been a year already, but last October I had the pleasure of finally making it to the Kimchi Festival after missing the 2008 and 2009 editions. Despite living there at the time, weekends were generally reserved for the making of or recovering from hangovers.

I was young. Gimme a break!

As it was my last day in South Korea, myself, Nomadic American, and my friend Stacy decided to make a day of hitting the festival.

Team Ramrod posing with our kimchi prints.
Team Ramrod posing with our kimchi prints.

Not only would we get to participate in the making of kimchi, but the local Gwangju English language radio station (GFN) would be running a scavenger hunt that we’d entered ourselves into.

Learning How to Make Kimchi

For me, the highlight of the day was the opportunity to make my own kimchi.

While the fermented vegetable dish can be a bit confronting to a Korean newcomer, I’ve yet to meet somebody who spent a good amount of time in the country and didn’t acquire a taste for it. I can’t even be at a table with kimchi on it without emptying the bowl.

Lessons in how to make kimchi were available for a nominal fee, and we gladly paid up for the opportunity to prepare and ‘bottle’ our own kimchi to take home with us.

While I wouldn’t be able to get my kimchi onto my flight back to China, I did sample a bit later in the evening and it was… acceptable.

The three of us hard at work at creating our masterpiece.
The three of us hard at work at creating our masterpiece.

The process was both messy and fun, as we had to roll our lettuce in various spices and foul-smelling liquids before it was acceptable to our stern-faced but patient teacher.

After about twenty minutes of kneading and accidental splashing, we had finished and had our creations whisked away to be crammed into plastic bottles. They would be a rather pungent burden for the upcoming scavenger hunt.

The Kimchi Festival Scavenger Hunt

Our next port of call was registration for the scavenger hunt, where we were furnished with pens, paper, and bright orange t-shirts (pictured above).

From there, we were given a sizable list of clues and sent on our merry way. We’d have ninety minutes to find as many as we could.

Our frantic searching ranged from the inane (find the number 3) to the challenging, and I’m ashamed to say we didn’t even get halfway through our list.

This dog nearly bit my hand off, but we got the photo.
This dog nearly bit my hand off, but we got the photo.

Part of this was that we had to complete certain challenges (participate in an archery game, make some craft, cook a pancake) and part of it was because – well – let’s just say Team Ramrod didn’t exactly cooperate well when put under pressure…

I dominated this children's game! Bow before me!
I dominated this children’s game! Bow before me!

Either way, we finished a dismal “somewhere in the middle”. It wasn’t all doom and gloom, however; while we didn’t win any prizes, every participant got a lunch of gimbap (a Korean sushi roll style dish) and a bottle of makgeolli (rice wine).

While I enjoyed my lunch, Stacy bogarted the Makgeolli...
While I enjoyed my lunch, Stacy bogarted the Makgeolli…

The Korean bystanders were fascinated seeing a sea of foreigners in matching shirts, and requests for pictures and handshakes came thick and fast.

I’ll forever enjoy the feeling of being a ‘celebrity’/spectacle while in Asia, and couldn’t resist the opportunity to ham it up with the locals.

The End

Whether you’re a Korean culture enthusiast or just happen to be in the country’s south during early October, the Gwangju Kimchi Festival offers a fun and fascinating insight into Korean culture. While it has an understandable focus on this unique dish, it’s also got plenty of activities and typical Korean quirks to keep the avid people watcher entertained for a few hours.

While I can’t say I’ll be rushing back to experience it all over again, I’m glad I finally got to attend the most famous thing my former hometown does.

Your Say

Have you ever attended a cultural festival while on the road?

Have you got any kimchi experiences of your own to share?

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