Saturday, October 16, 2010

Cabbage kimchi

Ah, the healthful, delicious trio of ginger, garlic, and hot chili!  My obsession continues, and kimchi is another food that combines them all.  It can be hard to find vegetarian kimchi in stores--most brands are made with fish sauce and I have found that even the ones that don't list fish sauce as an ingredient still often taste kind of fishy--but when it's this easy to make, there's really no excuse not to.  Actually, there is one excuse and that is if you live in a small apartment, because this stuff is powerfully fragrant while it's fermenting, and though the smell is delicious it can be a bit wearing if you're exposed to it morning, noon, and night.  You'll want to give the kimchi a room of its own, or do what I did and let it ferment in the basement.

My experience with fermenting foods is limited, and I'm certainly no expert, but it's a fascinating process.  Unlike with pickles, you don't sterilize or even cook anything.  I was following a recipe in Madhur Jaffrey's World of the East Vegetarian Cooking, but there are plenty of very similar ones all over the Internet.

Start with a pound of Chinese cabbage (about one small head or half a large one) and a pound of daikon radish.  Slice the cabbage into thick ribbons, and peel the daikon and finely slice it as well (I used a mandoline).  Put the vegetables into a bowl with 5 cups of water and 3 tbsp salt.  Weight the top down with a small plate, cover lightly, and let sit 12 hours or overnight.

Now mix together 2 tbsp finely minced ginger, 1 1/2 tbsp minced garlic, 1 tbsp (or more) hot red chili powder, and 1 tsp sugar.  You can also add scallions, but I didn't this time because all mine were in the garden and it was night and I hadn't thought ahead and didn't want to go out there and try to pick scallions in the dark.  Anyway, put all this into a large bowl and mix it together. 

Scoop the cabbage/daikon mixture out of its brine with a slotted spoon and add it to the spices (save the brine though).  Mix the vegetables and spices together well and pack into a jar.  Mine filled a two-quart jar a little over half full.  Pour in just enough of the brine to cover--Madhur says two cups but I only needed a little more than one.  Loosely cover the jar, with a cloth, for instance, and let it sit in a quiet place by itself for 24 hours.

Taste and stir.  The fermentation should be well on its way.  This is the same as, or at least pretty similar to, what happens with sourdough starter or wine must after the yeast has been added, i.e., micro-organisms are growing in it.  That is, in more politically correct parlance, probiotics.  By Day 2 the kimchi is actually bubbling, not like carbonated soda or boiling water, but there are definite bubbles forming in the mixture.  By Day 3 it was perfect, but I didn't know that so I left it in the basement for another day and it now seems very slightly over-fermented and a bit sour.  My sources tell me that this is not a problem, and that kimchi can become very sour, too sour to eat by itself, and still be good in stews, soups, stir-fries, etc.

Once it's fermented to your taste, refrigerate your kimchi.  The commercial brand I had been buying lasted almost forever in the fridge, which probably means that it was pasteurized, but homemade kimchi should be used within three weeks or it will become over-fermented, which I believe just means sort of alcoholic-tasting and not as nice as when it's fresher.  My Internet sources claim that the fermentation generates lactic acid which will preserve the kimchi so it doesn't actually go bad.

What to do with kimchi?  My current favorite recipe that calls for kimchi is the one for soon tubu jjigae over at i eat food.  I've now made this at least six or seven times, and haven't been able to improve on it in any way.  In fact, though, I haven't been making it right because I didn't have Korean chili paste, so I was using sambal olek, which tastes great, but I had a whirlwind lunchtime guided tour through Chinatown yesterday with a co-worker originally from Hong Kong, and she was able to find a source for this for me.  All those people who say that Korean chili paste isn't like sambal olek but has a taste all its own are right; it's a whole different substance--so there's an excuse for me to try the dish again.  Do click the link above for incredibly beautiful pictures, kewl cast iron dishes, and the recipe.  Renae, of course, also makes her own kimchi.


  1. I'm familiar with the tang of fermented-food-air, having fermented things in the distant past on a fairly regular basis. I think it's time to perfume the kitchen once again with the pungent smell of fermentation, and your kimchee looks like a great thing to start with. I shall obtain the necessary ingredients today at the farmers market!

  2. Yum! Thanks for sharing, Zoa. I've never made my own kimchi, but it certainly sounds worthwhile.

  3. Sounds like a fun process (provided you can isolate the smell). It looks delicious, thanks for posting all the info on how to go about it.

  4. Try kimchi jeon (savory pancakes)--they're excellent for very ripe kimchi.
    I agree that a lot of 'veg' kimchi tastes fishy, and I love that same cookbook from Madhur Jaffrey.

  5. Andrea, good luck!

    Thanks, Tiffany and Rose. And Katharine, thanks more than you know for your hint. I am trying to get into Korean cooking but finding it somewhat difficult initially, so I think I'll start with kimchi jeon--I've googled it already and can hardly wait to try it.

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