“The umami, spice, crunch, and sweetness of kimchi are the thread in which the lives of Koreans are woven.” Hannah Chung
I didn’t travel to the land of kimchi, but I have been exploring the world of microbes…specifically, the microbial world that thrives in a fermenting crock of kimchi. I got interested in learning more about making kimchi after reading Michael Pollan’s book, Cooked. In the book, he devotes a section entitled “Earth” to fermented foods. He traveled among the “fermentos”— explorers in the world of culinary microbes–to learn more about the benefits of fermentation. This led him to Sandor Katz, who has written two books about fermented foods, Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation.
Katz writes that fermentation is an “everyday miracle, performed by microscopic bacteria and fungi—the “ubiquitous agents of transformation.” I discovered that the symbiotic relationship that microbes have with the human body is just as crucial and exciting as the relationship they have with plants and garden soil. Beneficial bacteria exist symbiotically in our digestive systems, where they break down foods into nutrients our bodies can absorb and help our immune systems function. Live, unpasteurized, fermented foods are the mode of delivery. Wow! Kimchi is compost for our guts.
Katz also explains that some cultures of microorganism are responsible for extraordinary culinary transformation. “Tiny beings, invisible to us, bring us compelling and varied flavors. Fermentation gives us many of our most basic staples, such as bread and cheese, and our most pleasurable treats, including chocolate, coffee, wine, and beer.” And kimchi!
I wasn’t always enamored of kimchi. Two things helped me become a born-again kimchi lover. One was the realization the kimchi is basically Korean salsa. To paraphrase John Willoughby, I had achieved the zen of kimchi and was at one with the little dishes of intense flavor. The second life-changing event was the arrival of a jar of kimchi made by Hannah Chung, owner of Simply Seoul Kitchen. She is known as the Atlanta Kimchi Queen. Friends Jim and Margaret handed me the jar and warned that it should only be opened while holding it over the sink. I followed their advice, and the kimchi erupted out of the jar with an explosion of chiles and garlic. That is live culture! I wanted to make kimchi that good.
So, what’s the difference between kimchi and sauerkraut? They are both made in low oxygen conditions by lactobacillus bacteria, which convert the sugars in cabbage or other vegetables to lactic acid. The fermentation helps preserve the vegetables and gives the finished product its tangy flavor. Sauerkraut is usually made with green cabbage, while kimchi is most commonly made with napa cabbage. Kimchi can include a variety of other vegetables or be made without cabbage at all, but is usually enhanced by modest-to-generous amounts of garlic, ginger, scallions, and hot red chiles.
The Kimchi Queen’s website, simplyseoulkitchen.com, explains that the unique, tangy taste of kimchi comes from fermentation at low temperatures. In Korea, a winter’s supply of cabbage was traditionally fermented in large urns buried in the ground to maintain a steady, cool temperature. This method also represents the Korean belief that “Heaven, earth, and humanity are one.”
So…how to become one with kimchi? I looked around and found a wide variety of recipes with a confusing variation in ingredients. Some include apple or pear, anchovies and squid, fish sauce and shrimp, Korean chile flakes or “any form of hot pepper you like”, little ginger and garlic, lots of ginger and garlic, rice flour or cooked rice… Sandor Katz simply advises to “experiment with quantities and don’t worry too much about them.” But, I was a little worried about exploding jars or worse.
Luckily, I discovered a Korean woman named Holly who blogs on a website www.beyondkimchee.com. I liked Holly immediately. She posted a photo of a bug-eaten cabbage leaf and said, “I like to see cabbage with holes in leaves…it means your cabbages are not overly pesticide.” She de-mystified the process of kimchi making with step-by-step photos and good advice, like “you need to wash the leaves to get rid of the bugs,” and you need good salt to make good kimchi—Korean sea salt, to be exact. She also explained why rice, rice flour, or even cooked potato appear in the list of ingredients for many recipes. The starch helps make the seasoning stick to the vegetables and aids the fermentation process by feeding the good bacteria. Apple and pear promote fermentation, as well. Holly fortifies her kimchi with a stock made from anchovies and shrimp heads and adds other seafood like salted shrimp, squid, or crab. “Adding extra sea flavor will make your kimchi so flavorful when fermented,” she says. “Hope you don’t skip it!”
With Holly’s enthusiastic guidance and a promising list of ingredients, I was ready to turn my bountiful harvest of Napa cabbages into kimchi.
The Basic Kimchi Process
I followed directions for “quick kimchi,”which ferments faster and is ready to eat sooner than traditional kimchi made with whole cabbage leaves. I started with Napa cabbage, but then went on to “kimchi” almost every other vegetable in sight.
Ingredients: 2 lb head Napa cabbage, 1/2 cup coarse sea salt (preferred) or kosher salt, 2 quarts spring or filtered water (no chlorine), 1 bunch green onions (scallions)
Cut the cabbage into quarters lengthwise. Trim away any tough stem or core. Cut each quarter into about 5 pieces. The leafy part should be larger than the white stem sections. Wash the leaves well and drain in a colander. Transfer to a large bowl.
Make a brine with the salt and water, stirring until the salt dissolves. Pour the brine over the cabbage and weight with a plate to keep the leaves submerged. Let the cabbage soak in the brine 1 to 2 hours. (Holly says one, Hannah says two)Turn the leaves so that the top goes to the bottom . Let it sit another 1 to 2 hours. The cabbage should be softened, but not limp. Take the cabbage out of the salt brine and rinse in a large bowl of water three times. Taste the cabbage. It should taste salty, but not overly so. Rinse again if necessary. Drain in a colander and press out excess water.
While the cabbage is soaking, make “sea stock” and seasoning paste. You can also prepare other vegetables you might want to add in to the kimchi.
Hannah’s Vegan Seasoning Paste
This Simply Seoul Kitchen recipe was published in the Atlanta newspaper. I scaled it down for a single 2-pound head of Napa cabbage. I also reduced the chile flakes by half in my own batch of kimchi.
Ingredients: 1/2 small onion, 1/4 cup chopped garlic, 1 Tbs minced fresh ginger, 2 Tbs sweet rice flour, 3/4 cup water, 1/2 to 1 cup Korean chile flakes (gochugaru)
Use a food processor or blender to puree the onion, garlic, and ginger. Whisk the rice flour (I used toasted rice flour) into the water. Add the onion mixture and whisk to combine. Stir in the chile flakes.
Holly’s Seasoning Paste
I adapted this version from Holly, substituting dashi for her seafood stock made with anchovies and shrimp, and fish sauce for Korean anchovy sauce and salted shrimp. I wanted to use what I had on hand…or maybe I’m squeamish.
Ingredients: 1/2 onion, 1/2 apple, 1-inch piece peeled ginger, 5 large peeled garlic cloves, 1/3 cup cooked white rice, 1 cup dashi or sea stock, 2 Tbs fish sauce (Holly uses 3 Tbs anchovy sauce and 2 Tbs salted shrimp), 2/3 cup Korean chile flakes, 1 Tbs sugar
Sea Stock: Dissolve 1 tsp instant dashi in 1 cup water. Or simmer a small handful bonito flakes and one 5-inch piece kombu kelp in 1 1/2 cups water for 8 minutes. Let steep 8 minutes before straining. Holly simmers 5 to 6 anchovies and 3 or 4 shrimp in 2 cups water to make sea stock.
Put the onion, apple, ginger, garlic, rice, 1 cup sea stock(or water), and fish sauce in a blender. Blend to make a smooth puree. Pour into a bowl and stir in the chile flakes and sugar. Let sit 10 minutes.
Seasoning Paste 3
I made this paste with red-ripe, fresh serrano and jalapeno chiles Delicious! Use a blender to puree all the ingredients. Add more water if needed.
Ingredients: 1/2 onion, 1/2 apple, 1/4 cup chopped garlic, 2 Tbs grated ginger, 4 Tbs cooked white rice, 2 Tbs fish sauce, 1 cup seeded fresh hot red chiles, 1 Tbs brown sugar, 1/2 cup water
Mix it Together: Chop the scallions into 1 1/2-inch pieces and mix them into the wilted cabbage. Pour 2/3 of the seasoning paste over the cabbage and mix it well. Use your hands, wearing plastic gloves to protect your skin from the chiles. Taste the kimchi and add more of the paste if needed. Any extra paste can be used to make small batches of kimchi experiments.
Put the kimchi in a glass container that has a lid. Let it ferment at room temperature for 24 hours, or longer if you prefer a more fermented taste. Store in the refrigerator, where it will continue to ferment slowly. It is best eaten within a month.
Adding chunks or slices of other vegetables into the cabbage kimchi provides more crunch and interest. Carrot, onion, radish, daikon, kohlrabi, bok choi, sweet potato, beet, and turnip all make good add-ins. They also make great kimchi individually or in various combinations.
Ingredients: 1 1/3 to 1 1/2 lbs vegetables, 1/3 cup coarse sea salt, 1 recipe seasoning paste
Method: Cut the vegetables into thin slices, chunks, or matchsticks. Cut bok choi in quarters. Sprinkle the cut vegetables with the salt. Toss and rub gently to coat all surfaces well. Let rest 1 hour, tossing gently 2 or 3 times. Rinse well and drain in a colander. Gently press out excess water. Toss vegetables with seasoning paste. Eat the kimchi fresh, or let ferment a day or two before storing in the refrigerator.