Thursday, October 1, 2015

Making Peace with Kimchi


I hear this word everywhere these days. For many years now I had heard of kimchi, but had resisted any urge to try it. I had heard of the ingredients, varying depending on who the information originated from, and the fiery spiciness of the condiment. None of these things called my attention in the least. 

Some years ago, I finally gave in and bought a bottle at the local grocery. I took one taste and threw out the entire bottle. I hated the flavors completely and utterly. I could not even get far enough past the flavor to object to the spiciness. And so it has been that even though I started fermenting foods 3 1/2 months ago now, with many absolutely wonderful (and some not so wonderful) results, I had no interest at all in even attempting kimchi.

Enter my son and his wife. They came to visit just a couple of weeks past and were talking of eating kimchi very often. Since we have so very many food tastes in common, I wondered at this. Even my son, who was particularly picky as a child, talked of eating kimchi. While still wondering what in heaven they were finding in this taste profile to love, I also thought maybe it was time to give this condiment a try on my own. 

There are as many ways to make kimchi and as many ingredient variations as there are kimchi makers, it appears. I was at the Farmer's Market last week and mentioned to someone that I was going to attempt making kimchi and another woman commented that I "absolutely had to include turnips. Without turnips, it isn't kimchi", she said. Since turnips were absolutely not one of the ingredients I had planned to use, I nodded and continued on my way.  


Meanwhile, I went online to research what ingredients are actually in kimchi and also what process do they use to make it. Ingredients as I can understand them seem to be based on cabbage and Daikon or other Korean radish. After that it is open for interpretation. Ingredients can be regular cabbage or Napa cabbage,  bok choy, Daikon, regular radishes, carrot, onion, Asian Pear, regular pear, apple, garlic, ginger and hot chili peppers. Obviously I missed turnips in there! And who knows how many other ingredients might be used? 


One of the main spices, and which gives the finished product its red-orange color is Korean chili powder. I do not have Korean chili powder, but someplace online someone suggested mixing up 1/2 cup of sweet paprika with 2 tablespoons of cayenne to approximate this. In the end, since I was making far less kimchi, I wittled down this mix to 2 tablespoons of paprika and 1/2 tablespoon of cayenne. On further consideration, while I like spicy foods, I don't care to truly go crazy with hot chilies, so I lessened the actual cayenne to only 1 teaspoon. Even with that much I had trepidation. Today, once the kimchi was finished and I gave it a taste, I love the amount of spice just fine. The heat is noticeable, but very tolerable. I probably could have added the extra 1/2 teaspoon, and probably will next time. And there will be a next time!

The other spices are ginger and garlic. I know I added them into the ingredient possibilities list, but the amounts are also very scalable, according to taste. Some swear by adding in one little teaspoon of sugar, and others add a lot more. Others add no sugar at all. The last ingredient is some kind of fish sauce. Here I balked.

I do not keep fish sauce, as it is not an ingredient I use. My husband does not like fish, and if something smells fishy in the least, there is no hope. So I just don't bother to use it. I do have anchovy paste in the fridge, and which I use - sparingly - in things like Caesar Salad. Since the kimchi ingredients are first brined in a heavily salted mix, I hesitated to use salty anchovy paste, even though I am sure hubby will never be eating my kimchi! Someone online mentioned using kelp powder mixed with water. I had no kelp powder, but did have dried kombu seaweed, so I pulverized a piece of this and used it. I could not tell it was in there at all, so who knows?


There seem to be two schools of thought here. Some, and possibly more traditionally, first brine the vegetables, anywhere from a few hours to overnight. Some brine only the cabbage portion of the ingredients, and some brine all the vegetables at once. Once the brining is done, the vegetables are rinsed well and the spice mixture is massaged in, and then the mixture is packed in jars or crocks to ferment. I opted for this second method of pre-brining all the vegetables together.

Others eschew this pre-brine step and just add salt with the spice mixture and massage all the veg together well and pack in jars or crocks to ferment. 

Vegetables in brine and then packed into jar to ferment

Cutting Vegetables

In this matter, as with everything else, there are varying ideas on how this should be performed. Some say to cut the Napa cabbage into quarters, lengthwise, brine and then after thorough rinsing, each layer of leaf is lifted and the spice paste is layered between. Others shred all the vegetables. Others said they preferred to have all the vegetables cut in different ways, making the finished product visually interesting. I opted for this last variation. 



makes 1 1/2 tightly packed quarts

1 (1-pound) head Napa Cabbage (12 cups, prepped)
1 small piece Daikon radish (1-cup, shredded)
3 - 4 stalks bok choy (3 1/2 cups, sliced)
9 - 10 small red radishes (1 1/2 cups, thinly sliced)
1 carrot (1 cup, julienned / matchsticks)
1 onion (1 1/2 cups, thin wedges)
1 Asian pear (3 cups, thin wedges)
2 Fresno chilies (1/2 cup, thin slices, mainly for color)

1 1/2 quarts (6 cups) filtered water
6 tablespoons coarse sea salt

1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger root
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons paprika
1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne
2 tablespoons filtered water
1 teaspoon Kombu or Kelp powder

Prepare all the vegetables as desired. I cut the Napa cabbage across into 
1 1/2-inch sections. The Daikon was shredded on a larger-holed shredder. The bok choy I sliced at angles into about 1/4-inch thick slices, the carrot was julienned, the radishes sliced very thinly on a mandoline. The Asian pear I cut into quarters, cored and then sliced in long wedges about 1/8-inch thick. The onion was cut in narrow wedges and the Fresno chilies were sliced across into thin rings. 

Combine the brine ingredients, stirring until the salt is completely dissolved. With all the vegetables in a large bowl, pour the brine over top and cover the container. Allow to brine for anywhere from 4 to 24 hours. I stopped at 8 hours, whereupon the vegetables were very salty. Set the vegetables into a large colander and rinse very well, immersing in clean water 2 or 3 times. Taste the vegetables. If they are too salty for your taste, rinse some more. Once well rinsed, set the vegetables in the colander to drain for about 1 hour.

Make the paste by first combining the garlic and ginger and pounding slightly to make a paste. Add in the sugar, paprika, cayenne, kelp or kombu powder and then add in about 2 tablespoons of water, to make a paste. Once the vegetables are well drained, set them into the large bowl and massage this paste mixture well into the vegetables, ensuring that the paste covers all the vegetables. Pack this mixture tightly into a large jar with at least 1/3 of the jar free as head-space. Alternatively, pack this into a large crock. Press down well, to release more juices from the vegetables, and keeping the vegetables submerged, allow this mixture to ferment covered for 3 to 5 days, or until the mixture tastes good to you.

In actuality, the vegetables tasted absolutely splendid just after mixing in the paste mixture! I intended to leave this to ferment for 5 days, and then forgot yesterday, so it ended up going for 6 days. When I tasted it today, I absolutely love the flavors, love how it looks, love the textures. There is nothing I do not love about this kimchi. I hope you will attempt this mixture yourselves.

My passion is to teach people how to create a harmony of flavors with their cooking, and help pass along my love and joy of food, both simple and exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things weekly. I would love to hear from you, to help me continue my journey to explore diverse culinary experiences and hopefully to start you on a journey of your own. Join me at A Harmony of Flavors Website and Marketplace, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.