If you are a fan of fermented and/or chilli-hot food and you haven’t tried kimchi, then you must! And if you don’t like it at first, you must try it in little bursts again and again and again. You may not be sold on its strong flavour straight away — but when you do decide you like it, prepare for the inevitable addiction.
Kimchi evolved from salted vegetables, or shimchae, in Korea some time before 700CE. Cabbage and chilli were added to the fermented mix much later — around 1800CE, with the introduction of hot chilli peppers to Korea via Japan — and there are even recorded recipes involving pheasant and fish [1,2]. Nowadays, it’s the quintessential Korean side dish.
I have to admit to falling for this spicy ferment in 2011, the year before the ‘kimchi craze’ apparently overtook Perth, and the year I turned…three years younger . Fresh-faced. Newly fascinated with rujak [aka “rojak”]. Easy prey. Before then, I wasn’t overly fussed about it; now I cannot open a jar of kimchi without salivation and a generous tasting.
I am gradually experiencing and learning more about the health benefits of lacto-fermentation (ie. preservation by lactic acid, as produced via lactobacilli, which inhibits the growth of putrefying bacteria). Kimchi is a naturally (wild) fermented product that is full of probiotics, vitamins and antimicrobial activity, promoting good digestion and gut health, immunity and even an ability to lower cholesterol [4,5].
Knowing that the best foods are often the product of serendipity rather than design, and being aware of the myth around yoghurt’s discovery, I have to wonder as to whether this fermented food was ‘created’ or ‘discovered’ . I mean, who would think of leaving a bowl of chopped-up, brined vegies lying around to see if they escaped spoilage at room temperature?
I can just imagine the conversation around that first fermentation:
She says, ‘I thought you said you cleaned up last night.’
‘But the spicy cabbage is still out on the table.’
‘Such a waste of food. I hate wasting food.’
‘And it’s my favourite, too.’
He turns his head sideways. ‘It was a cold night last night. I reckon it might be alright.’
‘No.’ Violent shake of the head. ‘Absolutely not. It’s bubbling on top — by itself!’
‘I’ll give it a go,’ says he, balancing red-speckled greens onto a stick and into his mouth. ‘Mmm..tangy. And still crunchy. It’s actually pretty good. You should try it.’
She folds her arms and gives him a look of utter disgust.
His eyes light. ‘Better yet, let’s bury it underground; let it go really sour! What do you think?’
She rolls her eyes and walks off, unaware that she has witnessed the beginnings of a great dish…
Aside from the addictive flavour, another of the factors contributing to the ubiquity of kimchi has to be that it is ridiculously easy to make. My recipe uses napa (Chinese) cabbage and draws on the expertise of others who know better than me: Sandor Katz, Sally Fallon, Emily Ho, Ben Morris and David Lebovitz [4,7,8,9,10]. Incidentally, the thing I love about Ben’s bok choy recipe is that it features a calculator that updates the required amount of each paste ingredient based on your bok choy count .
Recipe #146: Easy cabbage kimchi. This is a raw recipe. You will need a large saucepan, a small bowl, a very big bowl, a large colander and a very clean 2.5-3L jar (or 4-5 x 600mL jars). And I would invest in some rubber gloves, because this mixture can sting your skin.
Note that this recipe takes about 30 minutes of prep time in total (once the brine is cooled and ready to use), but you’ll need to wait at least 2 days before it is ready to eat.
You will need:
► 6 Tbsp of salt
► 12 cups of water
► 1 large (~2kg) napa cabbage
► 5 good-sized cloves of garlic, grated with a microplane
► 1 heaped tsp of ginger, grated with a microplane
► 4 Tbsp of hot chilli flakes [while this is a conservative amount of chilli, I recommend halving the amount if you can’t handle hot spice]
► 1/8 tsp of cayenne pepper
► 3 Tbsp of dulse flakes [you could equally use kelp powder or fish sauce]
► 6 spring onions (scallions), cut into 2 cm lengths
Begin by making the brine. Place the salt and water together in a large saucepan over a heat source, stirring occasionally. Remove the saucepan from the heat when the salt crystals are dissolved. Put the saucepan to one side and allow the brine to cool.
Once the brine has reached room temperature, cut the cabbage into rough pieces (cut out and compost its woody stem) and place into the very big bowl. Pour the brine over the cabbage. The brine probably won’t cover the cabbage — yet. Place a plate and a weight on top of your cabbage to weigh it down (I used a full teapot) and, once all the cabbage is covered in brine, leave it to soak for at least two hours. I leave mine overnight.
Drain the cabbage and place it back into your very big bowl with the spring onions. In a small bowl, combine the garlic, ginger, chilli, cayenne and dulse into a dry paste.
Add the spice paste to the cabbage and spring onions. Mix well with gloved hands, ensuring each piece of cabbage has come into contact with the paste.
When the cabbage looks evenly coated, transfer the mixture into the jar(s), pressing down lightly as you go.
Leave the kimchi on your kitchen bench (or at the bottom of your pantry if the weather is warm) until it begins to ferment, then refrigerate and start using your kimchi.
The kimchi should take 1-3 days to start fermenting. There is an easy way to tell that fermentation has started: bubbles rise to the top of the kimchi when you open the jar, or when you prod it with a chopstick. If you’re not sure, taste it. You’re looking for a tangy, fishy, spicy flavour with plenty of umami. And you should notice that your cabbage has retained a delightful crunch.
I have made two batches of kimchi using this recipe, and it just keeps getting better.
Some notes and tips from my learnings:
- If you can’t find napa cabbage, you can substitute with bok choy or another cabbage variety in its place — or you can use other vegetables, like daikon radish or carrot, as well as/instead.
- Traditional kimchi recipes call for the use of gochugaru, a coarse Korean chilli powder . I am sure that this would impart a smokier, more authentic flavour. I elected to use what I had in my pantry because it was there.
- That said, there really is no such thing as ‘traditional’ kimchi. Some kimchi-ers swear by ingredients that others would not dare to use.
- Use an unprocessed sea/rock salt and filtered/spring water to make the brine. White table/cooking salt usually incorporates an anticaking (free-flowing) agent and this may inhibit fermentation, as can the chlorine in unfiltered water .
- When you know the flavours you are after, play with the amounts of each ingredient — but remember that too much garlic will make your kimchi bitter, and too much ginger will make your kimchi sticky .
- Many traditional recipes feature sugar. While it can increase the speed of fermentation, it really isn’t necessary.
- The finished product lasts for at least three weeks, and potentially for months, if kept in the refrigerator once signs of fermentation are present [8,10].
This simple recipe adds a bucketload of zingy goodness to any meal. My favourite way to enjoy this side dish is with poached eggs. Or with salads, rice, pastas. Or straight from the jar. Actually, yes, straight from the jar is my absolute favourite way to eat it.
- McPherson, J. (2006) “Kimchi: A Short History” on ZenKimchi. Available online from: http://zenkimchi.com/top-posts/kimchi-1-short-history/ [last accessed: 16 June 2014].
- Korea Tourism Organisation (undated) “History of Kimchi” on Visit Korea. Available online from: http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/FO/FO_EN_6_1_2_1.jsp [last accessed: 16 June 2014].
- News Ltd (2011) “Kimchi the hottest foodie trend for 2012” on perthnow Lifestyle. Available online from: http://www.perthnow.com.au/lifestyle/kimchi-the-hottest-foodie-trend-for-2012/story-e6frg3pu-1226217500980 [last accessed: 8 June 2014].
- Fallon, S. & Enig, M. (2001) Nourishing Traditions, NewTrends Publishing, Washington DC.
- Lee, H., Yoon, H., Ji, Y., Kim, H., Park, H., Lee, J., Shin, H. & Holzapfel, W. (2011) “Functional properties of Lactobacillus strains isolated from kimchi” in International Journal of Food Microbiology. Available online from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168160510006938 [last accessed: 8 June 2014].
- Jalna Dairy Foods (2014) “Origins of yoghurt” on Jalna. Available online from: http://www.jalna.com.au/truly-natural/origins-of-yoghurt.html [last accessed: 16 June 2014].
- Katz, S. E. (2001) Wild Fermentation, Microcosm, Kansas.
- Ho, E. (2013) “How To Make Easy Kimchi At Home” on Apartment Therapy – The Kitchn. Available online from: http://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-make-cabbage-kimchi-cooking-lessons-from-the-kitchn-189390 [last accessed: 8 June 2014].
- Morris, B. (2013) “Bok Choy Kimchi” on The Urban Farmer. Available online from: http://blog.bentheurbanfarmer.com/2013/04/bok-choy-kimchi.html [last accessed: 8 June 2014].
- Lebovitz, D. (2008) “Kimchi Recipe” on David Lebovitz. Available online from: http://www.davidlebovitz.com/2008/02/a-kimchi-recipe/ [last accessed: 8 June 2014].
- Ho, E. (2013) “From The Spice Cupboard: Gochugaru” on Apartment Therapy – The Kitchn. Available online from: http://www.thekitchn.com/from-the-spice-cupboard-gochug-142194 [last accessed: 8 June 2014].