Ingredients: Napa cabbage, carrot, bamboo shoot, scallion, garlic, ginger, Thai dried chilies, glutinous rice, sugar, nam pla (fish sauce), salt.
Served with: white rice, sesame seeds, cucumber, egg, tofu marinated in soy/sugar/sesame oil.
I am a bit afraid to write this post. Kimchi is fiercely beloved by Koreans, and Koreans are a fierce bunch. They take their kimchi very seriously. Some of them read this blog, which means I have to do right by this spicy little side dish, or face consequences. I’m … probably in no physical danger, but I do want to keep my friends. After all, they introduced me to kimchi in the first place, and for that I’m thankful.
So, what is kimchi? It’s essentially a pickle made from Napa cabbage and/or other veggies. I’m going to pause and rewind here because until recently, I thought that pickle specifically referred to a salt-processed cucumber. Actually, when I was a kid, I didn’t think pickles and cucumbers were related at all. They sure tasted different! Eventually, I figured out that one comes from the other. Now, of course, I get it that a similar process can be applied to pretty much any food item, and that it can be done at home.
The basic idea is that perishables will not perish if they are kept in a salty, acidic environment. What does happen is fermentation, whereby “good” bacteria break down the natural starches and sugars in the vegetables, producing pleasantly sour lactic acid. This is also good news for the digestive tract, because the fermentation process has already done half the work. There are health benefits, too. Pickled vegetables are considered quite good for you, providing all the nutritional benefits of raw food. Kimchi in particular is supposedly one of the healthiest foods on the planet.
Making kimchi is labor-intensive and involves days of waiting around for it to ferment, but the steps are simple and the end result is certainly worthwhile. It’s incredibly spicy and pungently sour, but also salty, and a bit sweet. The garlic and fish sauce give it a nice savoriness too. My favorite way to enjoy kimchi is as pictured above, with some fresh cucumber slices, plenty of rice, and a just-barely-fried egg (so as to coat everything with runny yolk). This week I had some fresh tofu on hand, so I marinated that in soy sauce, sugar, and sesame oil, then pan-fried it and served it with the rest. This kind of presentation is called bibimbap (“mixed meal”) in Korean, and is a ubiquitous menu choice when dining out.
The first stage of making kimchi is to brine the cabbage. I washed and chopped 2 heads of Napa cabbage (did you know this comes from China, not California?) into a large bowl, then covered the pile with a small mountain of coarse salt, followed by enough water to submerge it. This needs to sit for while, so I left it overnight and continued working the next day.
I washed and drained the brined cabbage, and added to it ample julienned strips of carrot, bamboo shoot, and scallion. The bamboo was an experiment that turned out great; I’ll definitely be using that again next time. I have also used daikon radish in the past, which is a more traditional kimchi veggie, but I honestly don’t care for its flavor.
The last step is to make a “starter” for the kimchi, like a baker would for a loaf of bread. This calls for a paste of glutinous rice flour. I didn’t have that, but I did have some glutinous rice, so I buzzed it around in an electric coffee mill until it couldn’t get any finer. [Doesn't that sound like R&B-speak?] I boiled the rice powder gently, along with some sugar and a decent quantity of fish sauce, to make a thick porridge, which I then let cool. Next I pumped a few cloves of garlic and a hunk of ginger through a press and into the pot. Last but not least came the chili flakes. It’s incredibly important to use the right kind, that being Korean gochugaru, which is bright red and fluffy. You don’t want any seeds in the mix, and it has to be mellow, because you’ll be using a huge amount of it. Sadly, I couldn’t find any gochugaru in any of the stores here, so I substituted a handful of whole dried Thai chilies, which I deseeded by hand and pulverized in the coffee mill. I knew from experience that I would not be able to use very much of the Thai chili, for fear of rendering the kimchi inedibly spicy. In the end, I picked a good heat level, but there wasn’t much of that vibrant red kimchi color to be found.
I poured the kimchi starter over the cabbage, then used my (plastic-gloved) hands to mix it up well. At this point, it was time to seal the kimchi in an airtight plastic container, set that aside in a dark room, and relax. Kimchi needs about 3 days to ferment in its own juices. I know that sounds scary, but you will not die from leaving kimchi in the closet. You will merely help it achieve its pickly goodness, after which you will assist it to the nearest refrigerator shelf, where it will last for several weeks.