A Dish Served Cold

“I want the bastards that tortured my grandmother to bleed” spits Susan, her face contorting and reddening to match the hue of our food. “I want them to feel just a fraction of her pain.”

We’re in a tiny izakaya in Saitama-ken, just around the corner from my flat and Susan is explaining her dark reasons for being here over a bowl of  kimchi ramen.  “So your grandmother was a…a comfort woman then?” asks Manola, who teaches in the town next door.  Manola is dead cool. The other JETs we’ve met are an assortment of private school tossers and downright weirdos, so we’ve made a point of only befriending Japanese people and each other.  We spend our weekdays teaching English and our weekends in throbbing clubs and bars in Tokyo, grabbing steaming 5am bowls of ramen and larking about in purikura booths before catching the train home to the suburbs… Her Kanji count is enviable and she’s definitely the sensible one. I, on the other hand manage to unwittingly get us into countless dodgy situations, like the time we find ourselves in the car of a minor yakuza who tries to press pills upon us and entice us to some warehouse party with his mafia pals.

We love it all, but Susan has made it clear she’s purely here for vengeance.

She’s a towering half Texan, half Korean model type, and she fascinates us with tales of growing up in a trailer with anorexic friends. She’s like something out of a JT Leroy novel. She confirms that yes, her grandmother was one of the comfort women Japanese soldiers famously took “refuge” in during the war. A group of young Japanese men nearby openly ogle her, one plucks up the Asahi-powered courage to saunter over and tell her how “sekusi” she is.  She tosses her hair and casts out a murderous look before archly turning her back on them. “Wow this kimchi’s great” murmurs Manola. Susan scowls and tells us about the proper stuff her gran used to make in huge earthenware pots which she’d bury in the garden for months. Years later and faced with a superabundance of cabbage I come across the napkin with her recipe scrawled over it.

Instead of pointed Chinese cabbage, I try it with a spring one – it comes out a treat. The mooli is even better. You can eat it immediately, or for a more fermented taste leave it in an airtight container at room temperature for a day before transferring to the fridge for months. I stir the cabbage kimchi into my breakfast bowl of miso soup, fold the mooli into steamed chard and wonder whatever happened to Susan.

Susan’s Gran’s Kimchi


2-3 cabbages

1 mooli

plenty of salt

2 tbsp mochi rice flour

1 tbsp sugar

3 tbsp water

8oz chilli pepper flakes

1-2 tbsp fish sauce

1 onion

3 spring onions, cut into diagonal “horse ears”

1 bulb of garlic

4 inches of ginger

½ tbsp honey

1 carrot julienned


1)      Fill a sink full of water and quarter the cabbages lengthways.

2)      Plunge the cabbage into the water, and drain.

3)      Sprinkle each individual leaf with salt, paying special attention to the stalks.

4)      Set aside for a couple of hours

5)      Peel the mooli and cut into 5cm cubes.

6)      Place in a large bowl and toss in plenty of salt. Set aside.

7)      after a few hours rinse the cabbage and radish really well. 3 or 4 times ought to do it.

8)      Blitz the onion, ginger and garlic in a food processor.

9)      To make the kimchi paste, put the rice flour and water in a small pan and gently heat until you have a thick porridge. Stir in the honey, sugar and salt and allow to cool.

10)   Add the fish sauce, chilli pepper flakes, blitzed onion, ginger and garlic.

11)   Stir in the spring onion and carrots.

12)   Transfer to a large bowl and mix half with the cabbage and half with the radish.

13)   Seal in air-tight containers or earthenware jars.

14)   You should see bubbles appearing on the surface after a few days, this means the fermentation process is underway…


  1. Were you inspired to think of this recipe by our Japanese cooking class? Like the new look – very clean and pretty!

  2. What did happen to Susan?

    Oh, how I love Japan. Hopeing to get back for a little bit this year. It must have been lovely to live there for a while.

    I have chinese cabbage here – happy coincidence.

  3. Right well I’m making this at the earliest opportunity. I’m a kimchi addict and I’ve been meaning to get some started. Cheers, Susan.

  4. Beautiful food, even better story. I love your writing. Cheers!

  5. Ben

    I’m waiting to try some…

  6. Wow, that opening line certainly kicked me in the teeth.

    And I’ve never heard of ‘kimchi’ before. Fermented cabbage? What does it taste like? Wind?

  7. Wow. That’s just ace.

  8. Oh happy day – A kimchi recipe. I’ve been looking or one of these for ages. And that story just added spice to the whole thing. Isn’t it wonderful how a memory can be sparked by a bite of food – or vice versa.

    @FoodUrchin I am pretty sure we had something close to kimchi in Tohbang before the bibimbap.

    *pauses to read back what he just wrote*

    Wow, that all sounds a bit Lord of the Rings doesn’t it?

  9. lostinthelarder

    Loved this post. Had me from the start and I love kimchi

    • gastrogeek

      gourmetchick- I wasn’t (although I loved our class!)

      Niamh- Yep, it was incredible living there properly- real life-changing stuff

      Helen – lovely! Be warned, no matter how air-tight your efforts, your fridge will REEK of the stuff.

      foodjihadist- thank you! (I love your name)

      Ben – will make sure I save some for you, Norum

      FU- yes. that is precisely what it tastes like.

      Marshy – cheers!

      The grubworm- ha! hilarious.

      Lostinthelarder – thank you 🙂

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