Virginia marks the first Kimchi Day to celebrate the Korean-American community

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For those who still do it the traditional way, November is the month after the cabbage harvest, when families and friends gather to make kimchi for a year, smearing a spicy red paste into the folds of the cabbage, and using it for the Fill fermenting into jars. The jars are buried in the ground or, in modern times, kept in a special kimchi refrigerator. The resulting dish, ubiquitous in Korean cuisine, is salty, sweet, spicy, sour, and contains a pinch of umami.

In Korean culture, kimchi is much more than that. It tells the history and continuity of the Korean people, geography and peninsular climate. It’s a source of pride. It brings families together, some of whom still gather to cook dozens of cabbages each fall.

For these reasons and many more, Virginia will mark its first Kimchi Day on Tuesday to recognize the dish’s central importance and importance to Koreans and to celebrate the growing Korean-American community in the Commonwealth.

On Saturday, in recognition of the milestone, the Korean American Women’s Association held a kimchi festival at Good Shepherd Evangelical Church in Springfield, which reenacted a family ritual. At folding tables throughout the church cafeteria, an ethnically diverse crowd of about 150 people had a chance to make their own kimchi, don plastic gloves, and smear the paste—reddened with gochugaru, the Korean chili powder—into the folds of the cabbage.

Kimchi Day in Virginia was created when Elaine Shin (D), the first Korean-American woman in the state House of Representatives, proposed a resolution to make it official in January. It was passed with bipartisan support.

“We are home to one of the largest Korean populations in the country. The communities of Annandale and Centerville in Northern Virginia are vibrant and busy population centers and hubs,” Shin said, stumbling upon the resolution during a rules committee hearing, according to WAMU/DCist.

Northern Virginia, and Annandale in particular, is home to a robust Korean community where signage features Hangul script and where Korean restaurants, churches, grocery stores, bakeries, and beauty shops abound. Ties between the region and Korea are so strong that the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority has an office in Seoul.

Mark Keam, Korean-American and recently resigned from the House to serve in the Biden administration, said Kimchi Day recognizes an important cultural export and the way Korean culture is being embraced in the United States. Keam, who moved to the United States as a teenager, said he was shy growing up about sharing Korean food and culture, fearing it would “clash with mainstream American culture.”

“In fact, it’s the opposite,” Keam said. “By coming and bringing our stuff here and using it and making it mainstream, we’re actually helping to create American culture.”

President Biden and Vice President Harris welcomed popular Korean boy band BTS to the White House in May to speak on anti-Asian hatred. Korean food has also become more ubiquitous, with items like kimchi now available in many mainstream grocery stores. Yumi Hogan, the Korean-born wife of Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, famously installed a kimchi refrigerator in the governor’s mansion. Crying in H Mart, the memoir of a Korean-American musician questioning her multiracial upbringing, is a bestseller.

But it wasn’t always like that. When EunSook Loiland, 60, moved here more than three decades ago, there wasn’t much community.

“I never could have imagined that,” said Loiland, a professional pianist, who looked around the room at people whose plates were piled high with Korean specialties — noodles, dumplings, meat and savory kimchi pancakes. “I’m so excited about it.”

Loiland grew up in Korea, moved to London, and then, on a trip back to Seoul for a fall festival, met an American soldier stationed there. The two fell in love and she moved to Virginia on a fiancé visa to be with him. But his dislike of kimchi put their relationship at risk. When he asked her to stop eating, she almost left him.

“Why should I marry him? Kimchi is mine life‘ she said, remembering her thoughts at the time. But he got over it and now consumes more kimchi than his wife.

And on Saturday, the longtime couple arrived at Good Shepherd Church with their son to make kimchi.

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