I love Kimchi. If you’ve never had this beautiful fermented Korean cabbage dish, you’re missing out. A perfect blend of pickling and spices, it offers just the right amount of spice, crunch, and tang to tantalize the palate–and it tastes great with everything.
Years ago, before the internet, when my Korean-born daughter was still a baby, I started making kimchi from a recipe I found in a Korean cookbook. Somehow over the years, I misplaced the cookbook and have been suffering without it for awhile. Recently though, I went through Santa Fe with a friend and met an artist who makes the most beautiful crocks for pickling all sorts of vegetables, including kimchi. I bought one and now I’m ready to rock and roll with Napa cabbage, daikon radish, scallions, red pepper, garlic, fish oil and Korean salted shrimp.
Korean salted shrimp. Easy to find, right? Wrong. My local Asian market is large, but its aisles and products are largely unmarked. I know my way around the produce, but by the time I get to the fish and meats, I’m lost. What is all this stuff? How many different varieties of shrimp are there?!
“Korean salted shrimp,” I mutter to myself. It has to be in the seafood section, right? I mean, it’s shrimp. It’s seafood. It will be with the other shrimp and fish, right? So I mosey over and encounter a fellow stocking fish. I look at him, my ESP sending the “help” message. He looks at me and asks me a question in a language I don’t understand.
“Salted shrimp?” I ask helpfully.
He looks at me blankly.
“Kimchi,” I begin. “I need salted shrimp for kimchi.”
“Yes, kimchi!” I exclaim brightly. By Jove, I’ve found a Korean!
The man calls a friend over, another middle-aged Asian man. They consult about salted shrimp.
“SALT!” exclaims the friend, and the two of them accompany me to an end cap full of … salt. Morton’s Salt. They are definitely not Korean.
“Ah, SALT!” I exclaim. “No, sorry … salted shrimp.”
The friend calls a third man over. “SALTED SHRIMP?” he asks loudly.
Friend three points definitively to a small bag of frozen shrimp in the fish section. “SALTED SHRIMP?!” he triumphantly exclaims.
I raise an eyebrow. This doesn’t look like salted shrimp. I see tiny shrimp legs. I mistrust them, but I put them in my basket because he has been so helpful. “Thank you!” I say brightly–but I’m doubtful.
Next I seek the fish oil and the Korean pepper flakes. I find them on unmarked aisles but these, I’m familiar with. Bingo, well done. Still, I don’t think I have salted shrimp. I think they’ve given me tiny frozen shrimp babies. I could make do with them, but I want to do this right for a change. I need salted shrimp.
Two Asian ladies are on the spice aisle with me. “Excuse me,” I begin, “I’m looking for salted shrimp for kimchi,” I begin.
“Kimchi?” one lady responds.
“Yes!” I reply, with enthusiasm. “KIMCHI!”
She walks me across the store and points, “Korean aisle,” she says. “Kimchi.” There’s a whole shelf of already-made kimchi.
“But I’m making my own kimchi,” I explain.
“You own?” she asks. “Why?”
I start to laugh. It does seem kind of silly, a white-haired white lady making kimchi when I could just buy it from someone who has presumably already made it properly. But, still … I’m on a mission.
My helper holds up a cautionary finger. “Wait,” she instructs.
She goes off and returns with two other ladies. One speaks English. I ask again for salted shrimp. I show her photos of salted shrimp on my phone.
“SALTED SHRIMP!” she exclaims, pointing to a beautiful array of salted shrimp on the Korean aisle, right next to the rows of kimchi.
“YES!” I exclaim, “thank you! Thank you very much!”
About this time, Google Translate finally decides to wake up and give me an actual translation of “salted shrimp” from English to Korean. I play the phrase and understand nothing. I’m at the checkout by now. The lady at the register listens and looks at me blankly.
“I found the salted shrimp for kimchi finally,” I explain weakly.
“Kimchi?” she asks.
“Yes, you know kimchi?”
“No, I’m Vietnamese,” she replies flatly.
“Ah,” I reply.
She holds up the bottle of fish oil and exclaims, “fish oil!”
“Yes,” I smile. “I’m making kimchi.”
As I load the small bag into my car, I think of the thousands and thousands of immigrants in the U.S. and how so many come here without speaking the language. I think of the strain of trying to find the simplest things at the market. I think of how American grocery stores have almost nothing useful or authentic in their international sections.
I’m glad I have an Asian market where I can go and be confounded and have an experience of being an outsider, because it’s humbling and hilarious, and one has to be bold to find what one needs in the place where one’s own culture is not king.
After all this, I return home and find my son and daughter-in-law in the media room, with a film playing in the background. My son is on his laptop. My daughter-in-law reads a book. “I just had a great and funny experience at the Asian market,” I began, “and I want to tell you about it.”
My daughter-in-law, a cultural anthropologist, listens attentively. Upon hearing the story of salted shrimp, she exclaims, “I was just reading your friend’s book, Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember, and she tells a story about her mother trying to make kimchi with sardines, because she couldn’t find salted shrimp at the American grocery store.”
“What?!” I exclaim, dumbfounded at the synchronicity. “She just told me this morning on Facebook that I have to have the salted shrimp.”
My daughter-in-law points to the page she’s just been reading. Sure enough, it’s about salted shrimp and sardines, and about how challenging it is to go through a market where their language is not yours, and their food is not what you need or want, and how one navigates that and finally settles for unsatisfying substitutes.
We smile, my daughter-in-law and I, about the delightful coincidence of two women, miles and years and cultures apart, both seeking salted shrimp in a grocery store but unable to easily bridge cultures. I smile about the bevy of cheerful, chuckling helpers who helped me find salted shrimp at the Asian store. I smile about friends from other cultures who allow me in, and help me to make the foods I learned to love in their countries of origin.
I’m so grateful for people who are welcoming and friendly to others, to allies, and I breathe a little prayer of hope that someday we’ll return to ourselves as Americans, and remember that we are in fact a nation of immigrants, a fact we must never forget.