What’s Going On? Kimchi

Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what’s going on
I was tempted to relax on the front porch swing, reading about Sunset Magazine’s recommendations for awesome National Parks and watching Mr. Artifact refinish another chair.  However, a news story about the tragedy in South Korea was fresh in my mind.  Earthquake?  Mudslide? Famine?  Nuclear war?  Nope.  There is a Kimchi shortage in South Korea.  (Probably North Korea also, but we’ll never know.)
I confess: I did sort of know what Kimchi was.  I knew it was fermented cabbage and indigenous to Korea. Mostly, I had heard about it from jokes (“You are in some deep kimchi!”) or old MASH episodes.  Frankly, my impression of this dish was that it was some awful stinky stuff that was worse than Limburger cheese and largely offensive to Western sensibilities. 
Once I saw a cooking show with a little Korean grandmother making kimchi.  The producers and her English speaking grandchildren were all surrounding her like she was some sort of relic.  She mixed the kimchi wearing blue surgical gloves, and everyone was gazing upon her like she was stirring toxic waste. The slurping and orange pasty pepper schmears (OK, she was a Jewish/Korean grandmother) all over her apron did little to entice me.  And the grimaces of the onlookers weren’t particularly encouraging:  “You’ll like this if you don’t mind pungent chilies burning out your nose hairs.”  Or “It’s an acquired taste, which we don’t expect anyone to acquire.”  OK, I exaggerate.  But these were the meta messages, and they weren’t really gastronomically or psychologically pleasing.
Then I began to wonder how an entire country could be thrown into despair because of a kimchi shortage.  There has to be something more here.  And, being of German ancestry, I thought that maybe the sauerkraut story and the kimchi story might not be that different. Frankly, maybe even the Limburger cheese story and the kimchi story could be related.  Fermented?  Cabbage?  Hmmmmm.  Time to become the Agatha Christie of the food world  and find out (cue favorite Marvin Gaye song now):   what’s going on?
Turns out that kimchi is not only a side dish, but a condiment and a national flavoring in much Korean food.  Koreans eat it with every meal.  They put it into a pancake, serve it on the side with a rice dish, or add it to a stew, top some noodles–possibilities are endless.   Kimchi is the essential flavoring partner to most dishes.  And, kimchi is really not just one flavor.  Different versions have different names. There are kimchi dishes that include fermented squid (think ceviche), cabbage and spice only, cabbage and other vegetables, dried fish or shrimp.  The variations of kimchi are as numerous as there are families.  The technique and typical ingredients do stay the same:  Napa cabbage, green onions, dried chilis, daikon radish, carrots,  garlic, ginger, rice wine vinegar, pepper, salt, sugar, and fish sauce.  When you break it down that way, it actually is very appealing.  I love all these ingredients.
So, I had to make it!
I bought a Napa cabbage for $1.29 at the store, feeling sorry for all the South Koreans who were paying $10 per head (yikes).  Because I was still a bit tentative about whether we’d like it, I decided to make a mini batch with just half a head.  Besides, I wanted to use the other half to make this wilted salad that Nigella Lawson raved about (more later).  I chopped it up, removing the core, into 3 inch blocks, layered it in a colander with about ¼ C of Kosher salt (remember: Jewish/Korean grandmother) and let it hang out covered in a large bowl in the fridge for 24 hours.  Some recipes I read indicated a 6 day brining.  (Naw, I’m a North American-want-it-now-gal—I went for 24 hours.)  The rest of the recipe proceeded as planned and the next day we were in shallow kimchi.  The number one son and Mr. Artifact and I all enjoyed it.  It was initially spicy, but then calmed down.  Either that, or our tastebuds were so assaulted that we could not tell any longer.  I understand that as it ferments further it will get hotter.  Stay tuned!  

Salted cabbage resting. (Sounds like a Haiku in the making.)

How I Did It (Apologies to Young Frankenstein fans)

Mini Kimchi Recipe
  • ½ head large Napa cabbage, cored and cut into 3 inch sections (about 4 C)
  • ¼ C Kosher salt

(Chop up the cabbage and layer with the salt in a colander.  Refrigerate for 24 hours, then drain off the water and rinse the cabbage.  Squeeze out excess water.)

  • 1 C shredded Daikon radish (cut into fine matchsticks or use a mandolin).  I cut mine into 3 inch matchsticks.
  • ¾  C matchstick or thinly sliced rounds of carrots (I did mine round to be different!)
  • 6  green onions, diced sort of large on the diagonal
  • 2 t ginger, finely diced or grated (I cheated and squeezed it out of a tube)
  • 4 cloves of minced garlic (2 T)
  • 2 T smoked Hungarian paprika
  • ¼ C rice wine vinegar
  • 3 T fish sauce
  • 3 T sugar
  • 2 T Srirachi pepper sauce
  • ½-1 t dried hot pepper flakes
Put all of the above together, mix up and add the cabbage.  You can eat it immediately, but it gets better after a couple days.  Put into a large glass jar with plastic wrap over the top or very loosely covered with the lid (do not use a metal bowl or container!)  and keep in a cool room for a couple days. (If you have air locks for your mason jars, that also works–but not essential.)   It should start to ferment and show some little bubbles. Properly fermented, this keeps for weeks or months or years—if it lasts that long.  If you do a larger batch, the spices are not necessarily doubled.  I’ll have to work that out, but my recipe above has a lot more radish, green onion and spice proportionally than I saw from my recipe research. 
To my South Korean friends (wish I had some), I can only say that I now understand what’s going on.

It’s Alive!

2 Comments Add yours

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