STEUBEN — If you’re looking to buy a holiday gift for someone, but can’t decide between buying a children’s book or a cookbook, go no further than “Little Sunny Makes Kimchi with Halmi,” by Jill Lee.
The book tells the story of Sunny, a young girl growing up in the United States with her younger brother Tak. Their grandmother, Halmi, teaches Sunny and Tak how to make kimchi, a staple of Korean cuisine made from salted and fermented vegetables.
Halmi shows Sunny and Tak how to shop for kimchi ingredients, how to make kimchi and how to eat it. The book includes recipes for readers to follow so they, like Sunny, can learn to make kimchi themselves.
A Bar Harbor resident, Lee was born in South Korea and spent the first ten years of her life there before she, her mother Terry Na and her brother Max moved to the United States.
The family lived in Los Angeles and Oklahoma before Lee went to school at College of the Atlantic, in Bar Harbor. She stuck around in town, and eventually the rest of her family moved there, too.
Maine is over 6,500 miles away from Korea, but Lee said she has met plenty of kimchi fans here.
“You find kimchi lovers by the dozen at COA,” Lee said, “and it’s all the rage at least in coastal Maine.”
A graphic designer, Lee thought it would be a good idea to write and illustrate a children’s book about kimchi. That way, fans of the recipe would not only learn how to make the dish, but also find out what it’s like to grow up in a kimchi-making family.
Lee spent six months writing the book, hand-drawing the illustrations in ink and painting them in vibrant watercolors. The bright artwork gives the story a charming, energetic feel as young Sunny and Tak learn the ins and outs of kimchi-making from Halmi.
“My aim was to make it approachable to different audiences, not just kimchi geeks,” Lee said. “Anybody can read it at home with their children, maybe even people who wouldn’t necessarily be into kimchi.”
Once the illustrations and story were complete Lee raised over $8,000 through Kickstarter to publish the book. Some of the donors attended a special dinner and talk about kimchi held last month at the Eagle Hill Institute.
“This kimchi’s delicious!” said Gouldsboro resident Kathe Bartlett, after digging into a bowl of crisp white kimchi soaked in brine. “Yum!”
At the talk, Lee mentioned a few of the over-200 regional varieties of kimchi in Korea. The basic principles underlying them all remain the same.
“If you want to make kimchi out of something, basically you salt it, take the moisture out and add chili peppers, fish sauce, garlic and ginger to it,” Lee said.
The regional adaptations of kimchi, however, vary wildly. In the cold northern provinces, kimchi recipes generally involve less seasoning and simpler recipes. For example, in the northernmost province of Hamgyeon-do, now controlled by North Korea, a recipe involves fermented flounder and millet.
In the warmer areas of South Korea, the growing season lasts longer. That means the dishes are more complicated and involve more spices. The province Gyeonggi-do, for example, is where Seoul, the capital city, is located. The former royal palace also is there, which gave the region more access to fish, fruit, and vegetables.
Modern technology has changed the kimchi landscape in South Korea, making regional recipes more accessible across the country.
“Now because of refrigeration and transportation, you can get any kind of kimchi you want anywhere within South Korea, any time of the year,” Lee said.
Lee’s mother, Terry Na, made the dinner after the talk. The meal included a sampling of kimchi and other East Asian dishes. Na once worked as a chef at Gaonnuri, an upscale Korean restaurant on the 39th floor of a building overlooking midtown Manhattan.
Na learned how to make kimchi from her mother, and she passed her knowledge down to Lee. Now readers in Maine can learn kimchi from their parents, too.
“I like this book because it’s not just a professional cooking book for kimchi,” said Na. “It’s just a children’s book, which is why it’s a good approach to another culture.”
“Little Sunny Makes Kimchi with Halmi” will be available in December at the book’s website, www.ulgul.pub. Lee said that if people sign up for the newsletter on the website, they will receive announcements when the book becomes available on Amazon and in local bookstores.
Lee is also holding an all-day kimchi-making workshop on Saturday, Dec. 2, at Anchorspace in Bar Harbor. Participants must sign up either on the book’s website or on the event’s Facebook page. The fee to attend the workshop is $99 per person.