Tag Archives: fermentation

You know kimchi but how about kimjang?

Sangyoub Park and Sunyoung Cheong

At the beginning of the new year, a variety of news outlets and food-related venues usually predict upcoming food trends. USA Today, for example, predicts that “Kimchi will be in” in 2020. As a matter of fact, however, kimchi has been it-food at least over the past 10 years. I became aware that kimchi was next big America’s food when the New York Times stopped using an additional explanation for kimchi about 10 years ago. Before that, whenever the Times talked about kimchi, it followed with an additional explanation like “Korean spicy fermented cabbage.” Kimchi is the most common banchan, side dish, in Korea. When the Times stopped providing “what kimchi is to readers,” it signaled that everyone knows what kimchi is. In other words, there was no reason to describe kimchi as Korean spicy fermented cabbage any longer.

Fresh kimchi

The rising popularity of kimchi coincides with another trend in the culinary world – fermentation. As Americans are obsessed with well-being, they begin to pay extra attention to fermented foods. Fermenting food is not new, of course but it is one of the oldest ways of preserving food. The reason behind the latest trend is that many fermented foods are thought to entail health benefits. The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz was published around the time this trend was taking off. Kimchi is a probiotic lactic acid bacteria (i.e., good bacteria) fermented food. Many people believe that kimchi has a wide range of health benefits including improving digestion, increasing the body’s immunity, preventing aging, and preventing cancer.

Furthermore, as sociologists highlight how social class affects food preference, food can be a marker of social status. People create cultural distinction through food and eating. In the United States, the upper and middle classes are ready to embrace more “exotic” foods like tofu or sushi to distinguish their cultural identity. From this perspective, kimchi is very exotic. With exoticness and health benefits, it is evident that kimchi will enjoy longevity in the landscape of American food. This is exactly why I describe kimchi as an “Eww” food that has become a “Wow” food in terms of American taste trends.

Sunyoung Cheong, Preparing for kimjang in her home in Topeka, KS. She also pre-prepared for kimjang by washing about 25 heads of cabbage and salting them for 12 hours the previous day and making a huge batch of seasoning.

So, it is hip that you eat kimchi now. However, do you know anything about kimjang? Kimjang refers to making and sharing kimchi with others (click here for a short video about kimjang). Making kimchi requires collective effort because the process of making kimchi is very labor intensive. It is not unusual that kimjang is performed with large quantities like a couple of hundred heads of cabbage. Kimjang is usually done during November or December to last through the long cold winter. This explains why kimjang can be a communal activity. It is a way of communication, a way of creating memory, and a way of bonding together. The ritual of kimjang, in fact, was designated a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013.

Kimchi-makers putting the kimchi paste between the layers of cabbage. This is a very important step to make good kimchi.

Over the past few years, we have invited community members, neighbors, and friends to our kimjang to experience firsthand how kimchi is made in a traditional way. We open our home to guests because we can help people broaden their understanding about “others.” We can be making kimchi together instead of “breaking bread together.” This year we invited friends (Akiko, Mary Anne and Luke) to make kimchi. In particular, this time kimjang was better organized thanks to kimjang mats, which we bought in Korea to test out for a potential kimchi festival – I am always dreaming of organizing a kimchi festival in Topeka, Kansas (Click here for the Kimchi Festival in Korea). Imagine making kimchi with strangers. And this might be exactly what we need in the Divided States of America today. During our kimjang, we conversed about children, marriage, changing food culture, and simply gossiped about everyday life. It is a way of bringing people together and creating a community. It can be a way of healing us. It can be a first step to unite a fractured community again. As an immigrant couple, after kimjang, we feel like our community has been extended by sharing our culture.

Making kimchi together.

Yes, it is good that more people are eating kimchi now but I hope that people appreciate kimchi simply beyond numerous health benefits. If kimchi can be used as a diplomatic tool, gastrodiplomacy, to enhance cultural understanding among countries (click here for a NPR story), it certainly can play a role in bringing us together.

Finishing up kimjang.

Let’s roll our sleeves and make more kimchi!

Usually after kimjang, Koreans eat steamed pork with fresh kimchi to celebrate the end of kimjang.

Sangyoub Park is an associate professor of sociology at Washburn University. He teaches Food and Culture and filmed the documentary “A little bit more Korean.” Sunyoung Cheong is a visiting assistant professor of the department of visual art at the University of Kansas. She teaches Casting for Jewelry and CAD/CAM.  She also creates interactive art performance like Wearable Play.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, fermentation, korea

The SCOBY Schism

Several of us here at the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition recently had the pleasure of reviewing submissions for our annual Christine Wilson Award. Winners have been selected and will be recognized at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association. It is common to say all the submissions were great, but, in fact, they were and we want to call attention to that fact by publishing abstracts of all submissions. We are starting with a paper that reflects on the growing enthusiasm for fermentation in the U.S. and, in this case, the intersection of biology and culture encountered in the world of kombucha brewing. Erika Kelly, who is an undergraduate, wrote a paper that demonstrated a grasp of the relevant literature one might expect from a graduate student and that raised great questions about the home fermentation movement. Her paper’s abstract is below.

 The SCOBY Schism: Rethinking Self and Space with Home-Brewed Kombucha

Erika L. Kelly
The University of Chicago

Over the past ten years fermentation, specifically the making of kombucha, has experienced an upsurge in the U.S., especially among health enthusiasts and food activists. Portrayed as a lifestyle by its practitioners, kombucha-making is supported both as a means of returning to culinary and ecological roots and as a product of modern nutritional science knowledge.


Kombucha Culture Up Close. Photo by Erika Kelly.

Online social media platforms surrounding the practice reveal that kombucha is highly variable due to the biological liveliness of the beverage. Practitioners use these social media sites to collaborate, sharing and receiving experiential knowledge that guides their practice. In my paper, I explore why the upsurge of kombucha-making in contemporary U.S. homes persists, as told through these platforms, as well as how this food practice functions differently than other methods of food production and eating in the U.S. (Katz 2006; Latour 1988; Mintz 1996). I trace the discourse of fermentation communities on various Internet blogs and social forums, as well as in printed texts. I also incorporate images and narrative, reflecting the multifaceted sites in which this practice appears. Through these means, I analyze the upsurge of kombucha-making as a lifestyle, as depicted by practitioners, and how this lifestyle rethinks the self and home in the context of contemporary U.S. food industry (Kaika 2004; Rabinow 1992). Ultimately, I argue that by welcoming bacteria and yeast into their bodies and homes, practitioners emphasize the sociopolitical potential of microorganisms (Paxon 2008; Power 2009; Tsing 2012). Home fermentation and its bacterial basis incite new trans-corporeal, interactive modes of living that call for deeper consideration of the natural world, the past, and the future (Abrahamsson and Bertoni 2014; Alaimo 2010; Tuana 1996).


Abrahamsson, Sebastian, and Filippo Bertoni

2014    Compost Politics: Experimenting with Togetherness in Vermicomposting. Environmental Humanities 4: 125–148.

Alaimo, Stacey

2010    Bodily Natures. In Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Bodily Self Pp. 1–25. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Kaika, Maria

2004    Interrogating the Geographies of the Familiar: Domesticating Nature and Constructing the Autonomy of the Modern Home. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 28(2): 265–86.

Katz, Sandor Ellix

2006    The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved:  Inside America’s Underground Food Movements. White River Junction: Chelsea Publishing.

Latour, Bruno

1988    The Pasteurization of France. Translated by Alan Sheridan and John Law.  Harvard University Press.

Mintz, Sidney W.

1996    Eating American. In Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom Pp. 106–124. Boston: Beacon Press.

Paxon, Heather

2008    Post-Pasteurian Cultures: The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States. Cultural Anthropology 23(1): 15–47.

Power, Emma R.

2009    Domestic Temporalities: Nature Times in the House-as-Home. Geoforum 40: 1024–1032.

Rabinow, Paul

1992    Artificiality and Enlightenment: From Sociobiology to Biosociality. In Zone 6: Incorporations. Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter, eds. Pp. 234–252. Canada: Bradbury Tamblyn and Boorne Ltd., distributed by MIT Press.

Tsing, Anna

2012    Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species. Environmental Humanities 1: 141–154.

Tuana, Nancy

1996    Fleshing Gender, Sexing the Body: Refiguring the Sex/Gender Distinction. The Southern Journal of Philosophy XXXV, Supplement: 53–71.


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Filed under anthropology, awards, Christine Wilson