401 book translation project: Kimchi Sister

In 1967, my mom emigrated to Canada and was working as a nurse in Ottawa. A year later in March of 1968, my dad arrived at the end of an Ottawa winter. In Korea, he had been working as a journalist and was not fluent in English when he arrived in Canada, neither was my mom. They were already engaged and they had their wedding days after he arrived in Canada. They lived in Ottawa for a year and a half before moving to London, Ontario and a few years later to Toronto, along the way, my dad earned a Master of Arts degree in Library Science at University of Western Ontario. There is so much that I appreciate now about my parents that I was unaware of when I was younger. This story made me think of comfort food and starting a new life in a land where you don’t speak the language fluently and most people have never heard of your comfort food. Kimchi is more than a comfort food, it is a given on a Korean table.

Kimchi has definitely gone mainstream, but it was not always so well known or easy to find the ingredients needed to make it in Canada.

Fried egg and kimchi taco recipe from Nigella Lawson’s cookbook, Simply Nigella

This story begins in 1968 in Ottawa, when it was much more difficult to find kimchi ingredients like napa cabbage, also called Chinese cabbage, or baechu (배추) in Korean.

Baechu / Chinese cabbage / napa cabbage

Here is my kimchi recipe. There are many different kinds of kimchi. The type of kimchi in this story is one that you may not be familiar with. It is mul kimchi or water kimchi. ‘Mul‘ is water. Here is a mul kimchi recipe (with some great photos) with just a little red chili pepper in the brine, but when I think of mul kimchi, I think of a clear colourless brine. It’s the first type of kimchi that my mom made in Canada. It’s not a recipe I have made myself yet.

“Sister” is expressed more particularly in Korean than in English and among close friends, you may call someone older than you ‘older sister’ or ‘older brother’ instead of their name or along with their name. Two words for older sister are, “noona” and “unnie“. If you have an older female friend, you could call her “noona” if you are a guy and “unnie” if you are a girl.

Kimchi Noona is a friend my dad met in Canada.


Kimchi Sister

  • Written in Korean by Suk Yong Kwak, 1976, Korean Journal, Toronto
  • Translated by June and Ok Ryong Kwak

The sky over Ottawa is clear and cold. It is not like Montreal where various winds blow and it lacks the hustle and bustle of Toronto. Located in the Ottawa valley, the land and the city is clean, clear and cold and it is difficult for immigrants to become established.

There are few jobs for labourers and it is difficult to work overtime or moonlight. Among Koreans in Toronto, there is an free and easy sense of comradery that is lacking in Ottawa. Most Koreans who have settled in Ottawa hold professional positions in hospitals, schools, universities, government agencies or the Korean Embassy, but for a newcomer just starting out, it is hard to find a job or a room in the capital city.

From my experience 8 years ago, living in Ottawa for one and a half years, my impression of the city is that Ottawa is a clean city where labourers struggle.
I met Kimchi Noona there. After three years in Europe and a year in the United States, she was working in Ottawa as a nurse. She was older than me, so I called her “Noona”, just as her friends did. At that time, it was hard to find kimchi ingredients, so she used cabbage, red radishes and carrots.

Even at a banquet hosted at the Korean ambassador’s house, this type of cabbage kimchi was very popular. Kimchi was a hot topic of conversation, especially for those who had just arrived in Canada. In the summer at the open market in Ottawa, which is like Dongdaemun market, if someone saw baechu (napa cabbage) for sale, that person would call others right away to spread the word.
    At that time, whenever there was a first birthday party or any birthday party, this lady always brought mul kimchi (water kimchi) in a coffee bottle. The kimchi made with beautifully sliced carrot, cabbage, and green onion was tasty and refreshing.
     Living in a foreign country for 4 years, gave rise to her knack for making overnight mul kimchi, and so she became known as Kimchi Sister, “Kimchi Noona … Kimchi Unnie“. She was of average height with a round face and fair skin and she was not a person of many words. Her whole essence was expressed in her gentle smile. That is why few people knew her well aside from one or two close friends. Not many people know of her past and people didn’t talk about her. With her good looks and good heart, why is she single? I do not know. There was only one thing out of the ordinary about her that people did talk about and that was the fact that she drove a red Mustang before any other Korean woman. She was known for wearing a white scarf as she drove around in her red Mustang and she often drove to Toronto and Montreal. If someone new arrived in the neighbourhood, she welcomed them with mul kimchi in a coffee bottle.

    The next spring, she wasn’t at the usual gathering and I found out she had moved to Toronto. She never invited anyone to her house and she didn’t let people know she was leaving. Before I left Ottawa, I heard she was driving a new red Mustang in Toronto. People knew her as someone


who never once complained about others or engaged in gossip and she was described as quiet and hardworking.

    Five years later I ran into her on the street in Toronto and we talked for a long time. I clearly remember her saying, “Mr. Kwak, I am still driving this car. What marriage …?  If I had started a family, the first thing to do would be to change cars.” That was the first story that I heard her tell about herself. Later I heard she had bought an old house downtown with twenty rooms, and had built a five car garage behind it and renovated the basement where she lived. The old house contained five apartments. I imagined that she would be living in a new modern high rise apartment building, but I was wrong in my imagining. At that time in Toronto many new high rise apartments buildings were being built and as renter, that is what I was interested in. I was wondering then why she bought an old house rather than a new apartment.

I heard news about her a few months ago, from a person who was at the airport and saw her dressed beautifully in a hanbok (a formal Korean traditional dress) to meet her mother-in-law. It had been only 2 months since having her first son and she appeared shy.

Maybe now there is no red Mustang… but a station wagon or an Impala driving through Toronto. I imagine her now seated beside the driver. I wonder about her husband and what kind of person he is. I never met him and could not find their address in the Korean directory.


Perhaps they live in the apartment house, I don’t know. These days in Toronto you can easily get baechu, Korean radish and all the other ingredients to make baechu kimchi, not just the mul kimchi, and I imagine her making some excellent kimchi and living in a well run house.
    How old is she? Well. When our 6 year old son had his first birthday party, a friend I knew from university said she was 30 years old, but she was not sure. A few years after that, it did not surprise me when I heard rumours that Kimchi Noona may be moving to Alberta or Hawaii. Even now, I can picture her, one lively Korean lady driving her red Mustang on the 401, a good hearted person with verve who never gossiped about others and brought mul kimchi in a bottle to any newcomer to the neighbourhood. May she always be so.

People on the move on the 401

(401 을 달리는 사람들)

June Written by:


  1. Avatar
    March 5, 2017

    ………..waiting for more…Rita

    • June
      March 5, 2017

      more coming Rita, thanks for reading!

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