Can you recall your first day of kindergarten? To be honest, I’m not sure I can. I think I somehow mish-mashed a bunch of memories from that first year of school into what I now call my “first day.” Here are the fragments that have stuck with me from that first day:
I didn’t speak English. Everyone else did.
I had long black hair, black eyes, and yellow skin. Very few others sported this ensemble.
I had to wear sok-neh-bok (Korean long underwear). No one else’s grandmother appeared as concerned with the cold.
My grandmother packed for me kimbap and kimchi. Everyone else’s lunchbox contained ham sandwiches and potato chips.
I came home after that “first day” of kindergarten crying. I hated my mother, my father, my grandmother, and everyone else who was “responsible” for making me so painfully different from everyone else, so Korean. I fearlessly told my mother from that day forward,
“I am not Korean, Mommy. I am American.”
Fast forward to my first day of college, at the University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign. The first thing I hunted down was a decent Korean restaurant, to ensure that I would have sustenance for the next few years. Thank goodness for Dorcas, the teensy-tiny family run Korean eatery on Green Street, that served unlimited quantities of kkong-namul-gook (bean sprout broth) through a water dispenser and made the best damn soon-doo-boo chigae of ever (…besides my mom’s, of course). I could have stuck a chopstick in my “Korean-ness.”
Over the years, my palate continued to be my “tell.” My favorite meal consisted of three things: rice, water, kimchi. If I was feeling fancy, I’d have a few sheets of keem (roasted nori) to wrap around my rice. And every time my mother saw me eating this way, she’d remark with a great deal of joy that, for some reason, continues to pierce my chest,
“You are definitely Korean.”
So, when I went vegan about a year ago, all I could think about was how my mother used to massage the great big heads of bright cabbage with handfuls of saewoojeot (fermented baby shrimp) on Kimchi Days… and I wondered,
If I can’t eat kimchi anymore… am I still Korean?
As I’ve written about earlier, The Korean Vegan is, in large part, a project that aimed to prove to everyone and to me that I didn’t have to shed my identity together with meat. Thus, figuring out a way to make vegan kimchi not just look like kimchi but taste like the kimchi I grew up eating was critical.
My favorite kimchi of all kimchi (there are many many different kinds of kimchi) is invariably chonggak kimchi, made with Korean baby radishes. So, I knew when I decided to finally tackle kimchi, I would be making chonggak kimchi. But first, I would have to figure out a way to mimic the fish sauce that was called for in every single recipe of chonggak kimchi I’ve ever seen.
Now, you might ask, “Why not just omit the fish sauce? Surely, it can’t make that much difference!” My mother took this approach when I first went vegan. She spent hours making me a huge batch of regular kimchi without fish sauce. She lugged it all the way to my house in a large kimchi jar to store in my new home. We both agreed,
“This isn’t very good.”
I was thereafter pretty intimidated. Despite receiving hundreds of requests from followers of the blog for my vegan kimchi recipe, I deflected. I made vague assurances that one would be forthcoming, without any real plan in mind for how that would materialize. But, after watching my mom and everyone else in my family chomp down on mouthwatering kimchi, and finding zero non-fish-sauce options at the Korean grocery store, I determined that the only way to address this gaping deficiency in my fridge was to make my own.
Starting with my own vegan fish sauce.
Google vegan fish sauce, and you’ll find plenty of recipes. I’ve tried a bunch of them, but none of them provided the requisite tang for my kimchi–which is literally the only reason I would ever had any need for fish sauce. So, after trying a few things here and there, I put together a bunch of flavors that I thought might work. After some trial and error, my Fishy Sauce was born. I added it to my kimchi, and voila:
I had chonggak kimchi that tasted almost as good as I remembered it when I was busy trying to convince my mother that I was American.