Unless your grandmother was Korean, you probably didn’t grow up with spicy cabbage fermenting in your home. And that’s a shame, really. The sweat-inducing, digestion-aiding ferment is served with almost every Korean meal, and according to ZenKimchi Korean Food Journal author, Joe McPherson, stemmed from the practice of eating salted vegetables with barley and millet to aid their digestion after early Koreans moved to an agricultural lifestyle.
Like many a modern day pickler, Koreans became addicted to the fine art of preserving, and began fermenting wine, soybeans and fish. More than an act of culinary whimsy, they needed as much food as possible to last through the long, cold winter. At first, kimchi meant radishes dipped in soybean paste or fermented in brine. Then came eggplant, cucumbers, wild leeks, mustard greens, bamboo shoots, and even fermented fish. Finally came Chinese cabbage—the modern day kimchi centerpiece—and somewhere between 1592 and 1700 chili peppers wandered into the mix. “In 1827 there were 92 types of kimchi,” writes McPherson. “Today there are over 200.”
A kimchi recipe need not be terribly precise. Add carrots for sweetness. Radish greens are kimchi gold, not compost. And fish sauce, as compared to dried or salted fish, moistens the mix and helps prevent spoilage. Soy sauce is a good replacement but lacks the ambrosial fish aroma that you will inevitably come to love… In terms of kimchi ingredients, the world is your oyster. Speaking of which, Korean Youtube cooking phenom, Maanchi, says you can even use oysters in your kimchi. Just freeze them in advance to make them safer to eat. Why Kimchi? Homemade kimchi has little in common with its store-bought sibling. Unprocessed kimchi provides energy for lactobacteria and bifidobacteria in your stomach—“good bacteria” that aid digestion. This is lost through pasteurization (cooking the kimchi or processing the jars after stuffing them). Pasteurization provides a long shelf life, but purchasing kimchi from a store shelf rather than the refrigerator section, even if it says to refrigerate after opening, won’t do your gut as much of a favour.
Korean Kimchi with Daikon, Cabbage and Hot Red Pepper Flakes
500mL jars. Use only Korean chili flakes (“gochugaru”) in this recipe, which you can find at Asian supermarkets. There are many brands. I used Bidan, but just make sure the only ingredient is hot pepper. 2 lbs Chinese cabbage, 1 whole daikon radish or several 10 small red radishes, 1 to 2 carrots 1 large onion and/or leeks (white part only, 1 bunch of scallions, or 5 shallots... as many or few as you like.
Brine: 8 cups of water 1/2 cup salt.
Pepper paste: 6 cloves garlic 6 tbsp grated ginger 1 cup Korean red pepper flakes ¼ cup fish sauce .
Chop the cabbage into 1-inch slices crossways. Chop the daikon into rectangular slices about ¼” thick (you want piece that are thin enough to ferment well but won’t disappear into the dish). Chop carrots to match, and slice onions (if you're using green onions don't add them yet). Stir salt into water in a very large mixing bowl. Add all chopped vegetables. Leave for at least 4 hours.
In a medium bowl, grate the ginger (you don't have to peel it unless it's really old and knobby), grate or mince garlic, and slice scallions or green onions. Add the pepper flakes and fish sauce. Drain the vegetables and taste. They should taste salty, but not so salty that you wouldn't want to eat it. If too salty, rinse well.
Wearing kitchen gloves, mix vegetables with the ginger-chili paste for 5 minutes, until cabbage softens. Stuff into clean jars. Push down so there’s liquid on top of cabbage. Press parchment or wax paper on top so it touches as much of the surface of the liquid as possible. Set on a tray to catch overflowing juice. Store in a cool place, smelling and tasting daily for 2-4 days. It shouldn’t be overly sour or sparkling or bubbly like wine. If stored in a cool basement (or any colder place) kimchi ferments more slowly and develops more complex flavors. If kimchi appears dry, press down on cabbage to force juices to cover all ingredients. Cover jars with lids and transfer to fridge. Discard parchment or wax paper.
Kimchi keeps for about 6 months. If white mold grows beneath the top layer, discard kimchi. But if mold develops on top, scrape it off and keep the healthful kimchi underneath.