Kimchi is a fascinating thing. It is a salt-pickled Korean vegetable dish often made primarily of Napa cabbage, but also made of daikon radish, cucumbers, spring onions and a wide variety of additional ingredients that create a range of flavor from spicy and hot to savory to mild and almost sweet. Currently, there are over one hundred different varieties of kimchi and countless derivative dishes – from pancakes, omelets, and soups, to salads and stir fries and noodle dishes. Additionally, there are forms eaten in times past that are not commonly enjoyed anymore.
Interestingly, most of the kimchi encountered in the west is of the spicy and hot variety, and its slang use in English reflects this. We say we are in “deep kimchi” when we have troubles at work or in our personal lives. People (often women) with fiery or violent social reactions are often said to have “kimchi tempers”.
Unfortunately some of this slang use of the word kimchi is used as derogatory to Asians. The term “kimchi squat” is often used described the way many Asians sit with knees bent and feet flat on the floor, or “kimchi handshake” to describe the rapid handshake that is common (and not-well liked by westerners) in many parts of Asia. Despite all that unpleasantness, kimchi isn’t always hot or spicy and varies quite a bit in flavor by where and how it is produced, the season of year it is made and how it is enjoyed once created.
Probably arising from Chinese suan cai a salted and fermented cabbage, kimchi started being produced in Korea during that country’s Three Kingdoms Period (57 – 668 ACE) and was made from vegetables soaked in beef broth and salt alone. The now distinctive red chili peppers, originating in North America were added only in the late 16th Century after they were introduced into Korea by the Japanese after the Hideyoshi Invasions.
In general, kimchi made in the north is less salty and spicy than that produced in the south. Often, kimchi produced in Northern coastal areas is flavored with fresh fish, shellfish and oysters, and kimchi from southern coastal areas uses salted fish or brined anchovies or shellfish to flavor savory kimchi varieties. In the middle parts of the peninsula there is a wide variation in the types of kimchis produced, and it is characteristic of production in the middle east to bury or ferment the kimchi for longer periods – lending a stronger flavor to the final product.
Although modern technology has obviated the need for kimchi production in strict accordance to the availability of seasonal vegetables, Koreans still tend to produce and eat kimchi according to seasonal tradition. The biggest kimchi producing season of the year is late autumn or early winter after the harvest has come in. Women will often get together to make kimchi together at this time – so, once again, it takes a village to make great kimchi. Salted Napa cabbage is a popular center for the kimchi and this is often supplemented by daikon, parsley, pinenuts, pears, lichen and sometimes red chili peppers (but sometimes not). In the middle part of the peninsula, it is also common to use pumpkin, squash or carrots as the kimchi center, although leeks and turnips are also used sometimes.
In the spring and summer, vegetables are pickled as they are harvested from the garden, often with lots of potherbs such as spinach, chard and fiddlehead ferns as well as other leafy greens used to flavor the kimchi of young radishes, cucumbers and early carrots etc. Kimchi made at this time is usually consumed quickly and not left to ferment for long periods of time, and so usually it has a milder flavor.
In the autumn, saltier, more savory or fishy varieties are commonly produced and enjoyed, with Napa cabbage being the most common center, although many other vegetables are also used.
This past weekend I put up several different types of Napa cabbage Kimchi, some spicy, some sweet, some savory and some a bit fishy. I like the mild chili peppers now known as Korean chilis so all of my types had red chili pepper flakes in the paste, but I also used daikon radish in the spicier variety, chestnuts in a spicy and nutty concoction, nuoc mam and shrimp paste in the savory and fishy types and in what I think may be original variations: Fuji apples and pomegranate seeds for the sweet varieties. The jars are resting in the garage while the salt and spices work their fermenting magic for a few weeks.
Despite its reputation, making kimchi is really rather simple. Although it is somewhat messy and time consuming, it is well worth the effort if you are a fan of kimchi as I am. One of the things I like best about homemade kimchi is that it has much less salt than the average commercial product – which burns my mouth. I also like having different types of kimchi around so I can serve or enjoy spicy, sweet, nutty or savory varieties – most of which are unavailable on the western consumer market.
Basic Napa Cabbage Kimchi (with variations)
1 large Napa cabbage
¾ cup coarse sea salt
3 generous tablespoons garlic, peeled and minced (about 1 medium-large head)
2 generous tablespoons ginger, peeled and grated
1/3 – ½ cup Korean red pepper flakes
3 spring onions, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon salt
Secondary vegetable or fruit
1 6-8-inch long round of daikon radish, peeled and grated
1 Fuji apple or Korean pear, peeled and thinly sliced
1-1/2 cups of chestnuts, roasted and sliced
1 cup of pomegranate seeds
2-3 tablespoons Nuoc mam
1 1/2 -2 tablespoons shrimp paste*
Fill a large vessel three-quarters full with warm-to-hot water. Add salt and stir to dissolve. Quarter cabbage and submerge in brine. Place a plate on top of the cabbage to keep most of it submerged and set aside for 1-3 hours depending on how crisp the cabbage was when cut. Stir occasionally to move the surface cabbage pieces below the brine. Move the cabbage several more times during the brining process to ensure even penetration of the brine into the cabbage.
When the brining is done, the cabbage should be supple, almost as if it had been parboiled. Drain the cabbage, reserving the brine. Shake or spin cabbage to remove excess brine.
Place the garlic, ginger, red pepper, spring onions, sugar, and salt into a large mixing bowl. Take about a cup or two of the brine and mix the red pepper combination into a thin paste. Let sit for 10-15 minutes to allow dried pepper flakes to absorb some of the brine. After that time has elapsed, add more brine if necessary to keep slightly watery consistency of the paste.
Add the cabbage – one bunch at a time – and work the paste all around each leaf until the leaves are evenly coated on both top and bottom. When you are done coating the leaves of each quarter, slightly run your fingers down the leaves and remove excess garlic and ginger on the leaves. It is important to leave some, but not too much on each leaf. Then place each bunch on a cutting board and cut the base of the bunch to separate the leaves. Then, if desired, cut the leaves in half crosswise, reducing the length of each leaf by about half.
If desired, you could place the cabbage leaves directly into clean, sterilized glass jars. Pack the pieces down as you go, but not too hard. As you near the top of each jar, add more brine if necessary to make sure that all of the pieces are bathed in liquid.
On the other hand, if you wish to add additional flavors such as daikon, carrots, apples, pears, chestnuts, pine nuts or fish or shrimp sauce, now is the time to do so. Place the grated or thinly sliced vegetables, fruits or nuts in between each cabbage leaf, or just a dab of fish or shrimp sauce on each leaf. When you have a stack that you can easily handle, slide it into the jar. Then layer the next set of leaves with the flavor and stack those into the jar, pressing down as you fill the jar. As above, fill jar with brine and seal.
Place the sealed jars in a cool, dark spot for at least three weeks to a month before using. Turn the jars upside down and then right them every few days to allow even distribution of the spices throughout the brine. Once unsealed, store the opened jars in the refrigerator or other cold place.
* If using the shrimp paste, saute it lightly and dab onto individual leaves, or mix with ground rice paste (roasted or unroasted) and then apply
Although it will be difficult, I will be anxiously waiting for the end of the month or early February when I can lace into some the the kimchi I made yesterday. It is really quite delicious and healthy – containing lactobacillus, and lots of vitamins A and C, good quantities of iron and some of the B vitamins as well. It also really works well as a central flavor for a meal as in a kimchi soup or omelet, or simply as one of several banchan on bountiful Korean table. ((Words and recipe by Laura Kelley; Photo of Several Types of Kimchi by ppy2010ha @Dreamstime.com; Photo of Preparations for Making Kimchi by Caroline Knox from Wikimedia).
N.B. There is apparently a Kimchi Museum in Seoul. I am very much looking forward to visiting it, and will report back on it if I am able to make it there.