A Kind of Surrender, Excited States of Being, and Other Reflections on Kimchi

Perhaps the new year has inspired a renewed focus on health, or a commitment to try new things, to reach beyond your usual comfort zone and toward a place of learning or experimentation. Perhaps you crave a deeper connection, to season, to place, to the foods you consume, or the time that you spend. Perhaps your microbiome needs a reset, or a little encouragement, after months of holiday indulgences. Or perhaps you have resolved only to live well. Perhaps the very idea of a resolution seems ill-suited to your lifestyle or your philosophy, focusing as it does on the uncomfortable itch of a constant drive for improvement; perhaps a fitting anti-resolution might then be a commitment to embracing what is, and not constantly striving beyond the moment. There are so many ways to approach a new year, and our own practices can change and shift over time, as we wade through the days, weeks, months, years, and (suddenly, somehow) decades that make up our lives.

Luckily for you, this week's featured recipe could be a good fit with any of these goals. It's a seasonally appropriate recipe, not requiring too much time or space to make, as we all still feel somewhat in recovery mode after the previous weeks. Yet the practice of fermentation, for beginners and old hands alike, always has something to offer us. Flavor, for one; nothing is as funky/tangy/umami/goooood as fermented foods. Satisfaction in the commitment to the practice, pleasure at the small ways we find to invest in care for ourselves in these trying times. This pomegranate kimchi feels like the right offering for this moment; a little bit of spice to wake up our taste buds, a bright pop of unexpected sweetness from the pomegranate arils. It's something to savor and look forward to, a food to nourish the senses and engage both body and brain alike, if you stop to consider the wonders of fermentation. Let's do this together, shall we?

Microbes are a community, after all, and a dynamic one at that, who transition effortlessly (given the right conditions) from one state of excited being to another. While it may take some mental gymnastics to wrap our heads around the idea that the cabbage we are consuming has already been metabolized and forever changed by the action of millions of teeming, invisible microbes, this realization is a window, or a magnifying glass, through we can peer more closely at the many ways we ourselves are changed and acted upon by our surroundings. Whether we consider the weather, our food systems, the economy, our neighbors, or the mutations of a particular coronavirus, we are constantly being asked to react in response to the world around us, to transform or to hold steady in the face of myriad shifting pressures. Life is dynamic; even though we ourselves can sometimes feel stale or stagnant, there is a whirlwind of transformation and movement happening all around us, in ways both vast and miniscule. This time of year, in response to the changing day lengths, the Gregorian calendar, and general post-holiday resolve, many of us are engaged in some form of reflection and assessment. How shall we navigate the next few months, how shall we respond to the changes? What to hold on to, what to let go of?

Salt-based lactic-acid fermentation starts with a kind of surrender, as one form (an individual cabbage, or daikon) is asked -- nay, required, by the laws of physics -- to transform. From the moment the vegetables are harvested, they are separated from the life-giving support that has kept them growing and taking up nutrients; they become now a unit unto themselves, no longer tied to the soil, the pump of roots and sun-sugars, the magic of photosynthesis. Having been acted upon by these forces, they can never be entirely independent of them, but when they are harvested they begin a journey into other states of being. In the case of, say, a kimchi fermentation, they are next acted upon by the elemental force of osmosis, in which, sprinkled with a mineral-rich sea salt, the composition of their very cells begins to transform. Water is a force, a living, moving thing, that aims always for balance; when the concentration of salt outside the cell walls is greater than that inside of them, the water within begins to flow out, allowing the salt in; the balance of salt and water flowing invisibly in and out through the semi-permeable membrane of the vegetable body is the action of osmosis. This release of water and absorption of salt creates an environment in which the bacteria that have dwelt invisibly on the vegetables while they grew now have an opportunity to break down the body of their host. The microbes now have center stage, as the one life of the individual cabbage becomes the teeming diversity of an exploding microbial population, supporting millions, even billions of individual microbes, comprised of dozens of species. The pioneer bacteria that were initially present on the cabbage perform the tasks for which they are adapted, and die; the next waves of bacterial colonization are made possible by a kind of benign bacterial cannibalism, wherein the bodies of the fallen are used as building blocks to create the next generation of distinctly different microbes, who metabolize different parts of the vegetable substrate which, in a mere week's time, will be transformed into the "singular" kimchi.

A metaphor might become strained here; after all, humans are animals, and not vegetables, our skin is not made of cabbage, and neither is is acted upon by osmosis in the same way; we have free will and self-determination, we are not yet actively being broken down by microbes, (although they do live inside and outside of us, in every corner of our bodies, and help us to do everything from maintain our proper pH to digest our food...) -- yes, yes, yes. This rumination (a strained digestive joke, there) is presented only as an offering, a kaleidoscope of wonder through which to consider the perspectives and possibilities inherent in every living (and non-living!) thing around us. It's a tiny window, a way to peer briefly into an experience outside ourselves...outside ourselves, that is, until we eat the end result, and the kimchi becomes, however briefly, a part of us, and our own story. It is no metaphor presented here, then, but you might consider it a gift, in service of whatever resolution you are pursuing as we enter the new year, all together; we are all of us, humans and microbes, neighbors and vegetables and minerals, just sums of each others' parts, constantly breaking down and growing onward, finding new forms, constantly becoming the next, best, new thing.

By Jessica Tunis