Lately I’ve been on what T has elegantly termed “one of your detours into regional cuisines” – more specifically, I’ve been trying to learn some about Korean food. It all started with a desire for bibimbap (link to the promised recipe!) – a dish I’d only ever eaten in restaurants, and guess what? Jyväskylä doesn’t have a Korean restaurant that I know of. There are, after all, some drawbacks to living on the edge of the Outer Dark in the middle of the forests of Middle Earth. The upsides are glorious auroras, amazing forests and lakes, and the downsides are – this isn’t really a city. It’s a large university town, and for its size and location, it is very cosmopolitan – which means that one can get some of the more exotic food ingredients here, with effort, but there isn’t a restaurant for every major world cuisine.
So, no Korean food to be had for dining out. Obviously I had to make some, and after a first so-so try, I did succeed at recreating the awesome bibimbap that I had photographed, but today’s post isn’t about that – or, specificlaly, it’s about one of the ingredients I used in it, which is probably the best-known Korean food item outside of Korea: kimchi.
In case you are unfamiliar with it, at its most basic, typical kimchi is a lacto-fermented cabbage (or one of a number of other vegetables) with generous amounts of chili, a bit of garlic and ginger and some umami flavor derived from seafood (dried shrimp, fish sauce, etc.) added in. The dish has a long and distinguished history in Korea, and I by no means make claims as to authenticity of my recipe, nor attempt to do it justice as the locals may be able to. However, as a non-Korean, I can still enjoy the flavor, and want to have some on hand, since I like pickles and I like chili, and I love the combination.
What I, and many other non-Korean people I’ve spoken to (I don’t actually personally know any Koreans, or I’d have asked their views as well!), don’t love is the frequently overly pungent scent that lacto-fermentation gives to the dish. It may be argued that it is an integral part of what makes it kimchi and I am a heathen for even suggesting that it isn’t divine, but there it is – I don’t like the stink of rotten cabbage. Interestingly, I do enjoy sauerkraut, which is also lacto-fermented, but there is something about fermented kimchi that turns me off. It is possible that I’d had non-ideally prepared kimchi, but there it is.
Thankfully, there is a solution – one that isn’t mine, but collected over a variety of sources including friends who can cook (thanks, Berin!), and blogs by actual Koreans, or which refer to actual Korean people’s recommendations for making what they call in English ‘quick kimchi’. The quick part is awesome for two reasons here – one, you can have kimchi overnight, and two – it has all the flavor and heat and umami of kimchi, but without the special smell! Simply put, it’s salted and seasoned cabbage which doesn’t get fermented – and trust me, after consuming the entire first batch within about two weeks of making it, and promptly making a second batch, it turns out amazing, if I do say so myself (friends who tried it agreed, so there’s that)!
Kimchi will develop a fuller flavor after a few days in the refrigerator, even if you forego the room-temperature fermentation. I think I liked it best after about a week, but it was delicious right away (the next evening).
So, how do you make it? It’s actually really simple.
What you are going to need:
- Jar or jars with tight-fitting screw lids, cleaned and sterilized (washed in a dishwasher at 70C works). I prefer using larger jars with an opening I can get my hand through – they make stuffing of kimchi into them and squeezing air out easier. (Note: one small cabbage, which is what I have used, will easily fit into a 1L jar after processing, leaving a bit of headspace. The jar in the photo is a Quattro Stagioni 1L jar.)
- Large nonreactive mixing bowl (I used a large stainless-steel one).
- A pair of non-powdered rubber gloves (I use single-use ones) and eye protection (optional but you’ll be happy you did).
- A small or medium white cabbage. I used a whole cabbage and it wasn’t tiny, but I sadly didn’t keep the tag to see the weight. It was small going on medium as cabbages go, less than 20cm in diameter.
- 5-10 large hot chili peppers (I bought a variety pack with a green, a yellow and a few red ones).
- 1-2 tbsp Korean (or any other sort of) crushed hot chilies (optional).
- 2-5 cloves of garlic (now normally I am one of those people who use a head of garlic when the recipe states a clove, but based on what I have read, too much garlic or ginger can make kimchi turn out badly so I restrain myself).
- a 4-6cm piece of ginger, peeled.
- A generous amount of table salt (I use the iodized kind because it supports thyroid function and the flavor and texture of salt doesn’t matter in this dish). One source suggests an estimated 2.5dl of salt for 4.5kg cabbage, but I just went by feel.
- 2-3 tbsp fish sauce (can be bought in the Asian Food section at most supermarkets these days)
What you do with it all:
- Clean and chop your cabbage into bite-size pieces. Yes I know ‘real kimchi’ is made of whole leaves and only cut up for serving, but as I’ve read on a Korean blog, if you aren’t going to keep it for a year, might as well make it easy on yourself.
- Toss the cabbage in a bowl with lots of salt. What’s lots? Enough to make it sort of gritty was the explanation I’ve seen. Rub the salt into the leaves until they all separate into single layers and don’t remain stuck together.
- Leave the bowl with cabbage to salt for 2-4 hours. Visit the bowl occasionally during that time, flip the cabbage and rub the salt in. Separate any leaves that you find still layered together.
- After a couple of hours, the cabbage will take on a wilted look and there will be juice collected at the bottom of the bowl. Drain the juice out and wash the cabbage in water a few times to remove excess salt, then drain it in a colander. Wash and dry the bowl with a towel and set aside.
- While the cabbage drains, put garlic, ginger and chilies into a food processor (you can also use a mortar and pestle but that’s not for the faint of heart) and chop finely. Add the fish sauce and puree a bit longer. You will need to use a rubber spatula or a spoon to push the mass down the sides of the food processor bowl a few times. The mass won’t become a paste, but it’ll start to stick together and the pieces will be no larger than small chili flakes.
- If you like your food really hot, feel free to add 1-2 tbsp crushed hot chilies (Korean if you can find them, or any hot chilies will do).
- Here’s where I break out the gloves and eye protection. If you’ve ever gotten a chili burn under your fingernail and didn’t enjoy it, you’ll want to use the gloves, too. I figure the eye protection is pretty self-explanatory.
- Having put on gloves and goggles, transfer the cabbage from the colander back into the dry and clean bowl by handfuls, squeezing excess liquid out as you go.
- Scrape the chili-fish sauce paste into the same bowl with a spatula, and using your hands, rub it into the cabbage, mixing it thoroughly until every leaf is coated.
- Using your hands, stuff handfuls of cabbage into jars, compacting it as you go to remove as much air as possible. Wipe the edge and screw threads with a damp cloth or sponge, and put on the lid.
- Now, at this point this can go one of two ways. You can be like me, wash the outside of the jar with water and soap (because it will get coated in chili paste, trust me), towel it off, screw the lid on tightly, and stuff it into the fridge. It’ll be ready to eat the next day and it’ll have all that lovely flavor and heat of kimchi sans the ahem, pungent scent.
- If you are more hardcore and prefer said scent, then after washing and toweling the jar, unscrew the lid just enough to let air out (still closed, but not screwed tight), and leave the jar of kimchi on the counter out of direct sunlight for up to a week before screwing the lid shut and sticking it in the fridge. (Note, I haven’t done this myself so I cannot pinkie-swear to it, but those I’ve asked about this recipe, have done so with good results.)
That’s it. Enjoy your kimchi in whichever way you like – as a side to Asian food, in fried rice, in bibimbap, in kimchi pancakes or stew. Just a warning – this is easy, this is cheap and it’s addictive. You may be picking up another cabbage at the store in no time at all!
The non-fermented kimchi will keep in the refrigerator for at least two weeks without any deterioration while being used. Use a clean fork to get as much as you like at a time out of the jar.