Sauerkraut and its relative kimchi have become popular again with the back-to-the-kitchen movement of fermented homemade foods that are so healthy. Last week kimchi was an ethnic every day food that no one outside Korea had heard of, and today it is EVERYWHERE, even in Mexican food like quesadillas and being demonstrated at the food stall at my local farmer’s market.
Kimchi is a Korean dish of marinated vegetables, most commonly thought of as a pickle condiment, but it is far more versatile a food than our deli dill pickles. This is due to the natural anti-viral properties from the lactic acid microorganisms developed by the brining, specifically one now called Lactobacillus kimchii. Health magazine named kimchi one of the the top five World’s Healthiest Foods for its rich vitamin content. To get the benefits of the fermentation process that is responsible for many of kimchi’s health-giving qualities, it is ideal to let it sit for a couple of days before eating, the essential technique necessary to create a souring. But it’s not necessary to do that, as it is still a mighty tasty salad when eaten immediately after making. Any time your energy is low, or you think you might be fighting off a cold, pour out some of the kimchi juice that collects in the bottom of the jar and drink it; it’s a wonderful tonic.
Napa cabbage kimchi is the most common style and consumed at virtually every meal. It is salty, sour, and crunchy all at the same time. You can make with just cabbage or a combination of seasonal vegetables, such as daikon radishes, cucumbers, and carrots. Kimchi always includes ground hot pepper, which gives it a characteristic red color. There are infinite varieties (it is delicious made with baby bok choy), for the pickle is a culinary household standard and served as as a banchan, or side dish, or topping for hot rice.
Kimchi can be traced back to the ancient kitchens of 3,000 years ago, when the vegetables needed to be pre-fermented to prevent spoilage. In Korea, they put the kimchi in large earthenware jars that are buried about a foot underground to ferment (known as kimchi fields), where there is a constant temperature of 55ºF. This is the ancient equivalent of refrigeration. Enough kimchi would be made in summer to last all winter. Considered a national culinary obsession, there is a kimchi museum and even special refrigerators designed for kimchi storage. The Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) developed space kimchi to accompany the first Korean astronaut to the Russian-manned space ship Soyuz, so it could be said it is a celestial food and food of the future.
The following is a recipe made in the style of a winter kimchi with the most popular kimchi vegetable, baechu (Napa cabbage) from my friend and veteran kimchi maker, Haripriya Saxon. It is a great food for vegetarians and vegans. Haripriya uses paprika in combination with the traditional Korean chili powder, which retains some of the peppery flavor and the traditional redness without blasting your mouth with fire. Korean chili powder (gochu garu) is easily available in Asian markets and is made from thin red peppers that are sun-dried. There is no substitute as the chili powder contributes to the unique flavor. Please do not use an iodized table salt as it will kill the bacteria.
Haripriya’s Winter Kimchi
Makes 3 to 4 quarts
- 1 large or 2 medium heads Chinese (Napa) cabbage
- 2 handfuls (6 to 8 tablespoons) Korean coarse sea salt (kulgum sogum-available in Asian groceries) or coarse sea salt, to taste
- 2 cups distilled or filtered water
- 2 to 3 tablespoons Korean chili powder (gochu garu)
- 2 to 3 tablespoons sweet Hungarian paprika
- 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
- 1 1/2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1. Half the cabbage, wash and drain. Put half of the cabbage on the cutting board, flat side down. Then, at the base of the cabbage, cut a V-shaped notch around the stem, and remove it. (Some cooks leave in the heart of the cabbage and chop small.) Then cut the cabbage lengthwise again to make 4 quarters. Chop into 2-inch pieces.
2. Layer the cabbage in a in a large deep glass, stainless steel, or ceramic bowl. Sprinkle each layer with salt, then pour in the 2 cups of water.
3. Let the cabbage soak, uncovered, on the counter at room temperature for 5 to 6 hours. Turn the pieces upside and soak another 2 hours. The cabbage should be soft enough to bend. As the salt interacts with the cabbage, it draws out its natural juices and begins to break down the cell walls so that the chili powder can penetrate. Water will collect on the bottom.
4. Pour the cabbage into a large colander. Rinse the cabbage well many times to remove all the salt and drain well.
5. Return the cabbage to the empty bowl. Add the chili powder, paprika, sugar, and ginger. Mix well with plastic gloves to protect your hands. Add salt to taste. Pack into a clean wide-mouth gallon size jar or 3 to 4 quart glass jars. The kimchi is ready to eat right now before it ferments (*see recipe following).
6. Let the kimchi stand in the jars, tightly covered, for 24 hours at room temperature. The exact time will depend on the season (1 to 2 days), as winter in a cold kitchen will take a few hours longer. The kimchi will ferment and sour naturally, bubbling slightly. This is the sign you are making good kimchi. Refrigerate when the kimchi tastes how you like it. Store the kimchi in the refrigerator, where it will keep for months. Some people like their kimchi fresh and eat it within a week. Kimchi will become more tender and saturated with the sour juice with time.
Note: The kimchi will be good enough to eat straight for up to about 3 weeks. After that, once the kimchi gets too fermented to eat by itself, use it to make hot pots, in vegetable soups, dal, soybean sprout and rice flour pancakes (kongnamul jeon), as a sandwich or quesadilla filling, topping a baked potato, or just added to plain fried rice. Saute with some vegetables and tofu and serve over noodles or rice.
What to Do With Your Kimchi
Kimchi can be used as a dressing or instead of sauce, salsa, or ketchup; served as an appetizer; and used as an ingredient in cooking. Kimchi soup, kimchi with steamed or fried rice, kimchi ramen, and kimchi pancakes are popular dishes. Kimchi can be tossed with diced tofu and heated or eaten cold for a fast breakfast or lunch. Scramble tofu or eggs with kimchi and diced tomatoes for a spicy breakfast entree, or for a sandwich or wrap filling. Kimchi perks up cold green, rice, and pasta salads; steamed or grilled vegetables; and cooked pasta, barley, quinoa, spelt, and rice. It can be added to bean or vegetable soups or to casseroles. It can also be used instead of sauce on grilled or baked seitan or tempeh, vegetable brochettes, and baked potatoes.
*Haripriya’s Fresh Kimchi Salad
Remove desired amount of fresh unfermented kimchi the day you make it into serving bowls. Mix with roasted ground sesame seed, and drizzle with some toasted sesame oil and soy sauce (Korean soy sauce kahn jang). Eat immediately with big smile.
Recipe and text copyright Beth Hensperger 2014
Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.