By: Sun Young Lee



Rice Vinegar – pH 4

I come home to the smell of death. I peel back a rumpled black garbage bag to find a twenty-pound vat of kimchi. It can’t be put in the fridge yet, my mom argues, or else it won’t taste good. It needs time to ripen. So it rots next to the dining table, a couple of feet from the kitchen, the miasma palpable upstairs.

There is always kimchi, yes, every meal including breakfast, served in a communal bowl that’s kept saran-wrapped. The bright red heads of napa cabbage are cut and carefully laid out by my mom’s gloved hand. She spreads out the latest juice, which commingles with the leftovers from two days ago. New and old bacterial agents meet molecules of air, salt, spit, and touch. I especially love the putrefying pieces sitting at the bottom of the bowl. Dimension that hits you in the gut.

Some say you’re predestined to prefer one taste over another; others swear by your family’s eating habits. Who knew I’d be so lucky as to never have to parse out which won out over the other. Extreme pungency is the sweet spot I live for, but it wasn’t always like this, because sometimes, eating kimchi day in and day out is too much.

White Vinegar – pH 2.4

My third grade teacher, Mr. B, lived across the street from the elementary school, limping to and fro with his extendable staff. Every day after school, my mom picked me and my sister up late, and I’d catch him in his front yard, the white gate wide open and low enough to see almost everything. I saw his car, his dog, his kitchen window, his girlfriend.

Mr. B was my English teacher, math instructor, and science lecturer all in one. I loved having Mr. B teach me everything. His hobble, his cross-eyed expression scared me the first week, but he was better than my previous teachers who looked straight through me. There was only one other third grade class. I only envied those kids because Mrs. C had a live snake and a lizard in her classroom. Mr. B and Mrs. C were good friends, and I knew I could trust anyone Mr. B did, but she scared me a little. The kids in Mrs. C’s class bragged to me about how their snake was fed dead mice, but no one was allowed to watch. Sometimes I’d catch a glimpse of the snake on those days. A lump caught in between.

Mr. B led word games and let us watch movies. He also told us stories during birthday parties. After lunch, we ate cupcakes and slurped on soda. Mr. B sat at his desk, munching on his cupcake, horrified by our copious consumption. “Don’t you know that if you put a nail in a cup of coke, half of it will dissolve overnight. See for yourself!” We peeled screams of incredulity, giddy at the home experiment. I was certain we had coke at home, but a nail, not so sure. We were dizzy with excitement, and Mr. B, infected by ours, divulged another experiment. “If you put an egg in vinegar overnight, did you know the egg shell will turn soft?” Now this was something I definitely knew I had all the components. I ate an egg with breakfast on most days, and my mom splashed vinegar in the soy sauce concoction I dipped my dumplings in.

On the car ride back home that day, I asked my mom if this were true, the whole egg and vinegar business. She had never heard of this either. Mr. B really did know the craziest things.

Rice Vinegar – pH 4

My parents always drove hungry. They drove to work, church, to pick me and my sister up from school, ready to eat. They didn’t want to go to the same restaurants I did. The local Mexican food chain Lolita’s or some Papa John’s pizza or even a Costco hot dog didn’t interest them in the least. They were happiest with rice and kimchi doused in sesame oil. The drive back home always ended with dinner. One night, I asked for some pasta. They hated the blandness of foods I yearned for outside of the house. What I liked was too nukkihae—too greasy. What’s so delicious about a burger, lunchables. That’s not a meal. What better way to cut through the fat, the continuity of a singular flavor with the added dimension of acid, a pickled option.

Without kimchi, the meal was never complete. Angel hair spaghetti with diced tomatoes and garlic—served with a side of kimchi. American steaks on the grill, served beside a bed of leafy greens and mashed potatoes sufficed for some households—served with a whopping side of kimchi. Baked lasagna, fresh soup, grilled fish, Vietnamese style make-your-own roll night. Whatever the culinary journey, there was always the slap of kimchi to appease our tongues.

Sometimes the pairing worked really well, like with pasta. The acidity in the kimchi cuts through the fatty roundedness of the parmesan, and compliments the red pepper flakes. Other times, it was more complicated, like with the steak. Maybe I was used to eating kimchi only with marinated red meat, so masticating pieces of steak sprinkled with McCormick’s Grill Mates Montreal Steak Seasoning didn’t taste wrong, just funny.

White Vinegar – pH 2.4

Give me the most pungent, mouth puckering pickle and I can eat the jar in one sitting—and drink the juice with it too. The normal pH range for a stomach is anywhere from 1.5 to 3.5. And the fervor with which I eat acid has caused many of my friends to worry about my stomach lining. There is always something pickled in my fridge.

When I feel ill from a cramped train that’s stalled underground, I’ll confront my nausea with vinegar. My throat, intestines, splashed with the tartness of cornichons or fermented chili jalapenos, as if to brighten flank flash-grilled on both sides. My insides turn from the gastric shift. My stomach gurgles, taking in more of the sameness.

Rice Vinegar – pH 4

My sister begged my mom to pack her a Korean lunch for school. She was only a year younger, but somehow she felt ages away. I preferred processed cheese and microwaved pieces of bread and defrosted meats, with the usual pickle thank you very much. A dill pickle. My mom, too lazy to cater to two different lunch menus, made one big batch of rice, kimchi, and spam, and packed it neatly into our modular Japanese lunch box.

As I recited the Pledge of Allegiance that morning, all I could think about was the smell coming from my backpack. It could not be contained. Any time someone looked at me, it felt accusatory. Come lunch time, I played defense. This is a special Korean dish, I told them, as if making this an exception to the rule changed anything. Ashley, ever the nice one, gave it a try. Even the less adventurous Cathy. But they balked at the taste of something so unfamiliar. Something I routinely ate was something they could barely take.

At recess, I played defense. But the red pepper flakes and the rice vinegar clung to my teeth, permeating every word I uttered.

White Vinegar – pH 2.4

I grabbed an egg from the fridge and a lunch baggie as pungent wafts caught in my nose hairs. I clamped the Ziploc teeth shut and waited. 20 minutes passed and I scurried back where the bag limped on the counter. The egg as hard as a textbook. I watched it, trying to catch the miracle in action. My mom, busy making dinner, put the saggy bag in a mug and set it under the sink. “After dinner,” she said.

My dad came home as usual, so we ate the usual. White rice, a hearty jiggae and some banchan: kimchi always, with the other three or other four rotating around the whims of my mom’s grocery shopping. Kimchi was like rice. Musts at every meal. Everything else was style. My dad, prosthelytizing about how his poor his family was, reminded us we were so lucky. The unimaginability of someone who came from having so little to owning everything he needed could only mean gross exaggeration. I rushed to finish, checking under the sink. The shell fully intact. I slumped on the couch watching TV until it was getting late. I never had a bedtime; my mom only told me to brush my teeth.

I always woke up hungry, but never in the mood for the full meals my mom would prepare me—kimchi and all. It was always there, just in case. I coughed down scratchy bits of toast and egg. Egg! I pulled the mug out, the clear liquid clouded with grogginess. My mom picked up plastic bag out to make sure there are no leaks. We both examined it above our heads. Nothing looked like it changed, but I held the egg, ensconced in vinegar and plastic, it was all flesh. Light and bouncy, the eggshell, revealed what was underneath.

Rice Vinegar – pH 4

It’s cool to eat kimchi now, so I eat it in my office. I stink up my kitchen and the cubicle I sit in but now the stench is familiar to most, or at least the people I care to be friends with.

White Vinegar – pH 2.4

I carry gum with me wherever I go.

Rice Vinegar – pH 4

What repels also compels. The stink makes my mouth water. It nourishes me. Helps with my digestion. To let all that shit go. Now, every month or so, I get an uncontrollable hankering when I’m heading home. I take a seat at my small kitchen table and pull out rice and kimchi, dousing it generously with sesame oil.


Sunny Lee is a writer living in Brooklyn who graduated from New York University and currently works as a freelance copy editor/writer for Tenth Magazine and Pony-Tale Stories.