Kimchi is a staple in Korean cuisine, a national dish of both North and South Korea. It is a traditional banchan (side dish) made from salted and fermented vegetables, most commonly Napa cabbages and Korean radishes, with a variety of seasonings including chili powder, scallions, garlics, ginger, and salted seafood among others. I’ve loved kimchi since I first tried Korean food.
And kimchi is good for you. Made of various vegetables, it contains a high concentration of dietary fiber, and is low in calories. One serving provides over 50% of the daily recommended amount of vitamin C and carotene. Most types of kimchi contain onions, garlic, ginger, and chili peppers, all of which are salutary. The vegetables used in kimchi also contribute to its overall nutritional value. Kimchi is rich in vitamin A, thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), calcium, and iron, and contains lactic acid bacteria, among those the typical species Lactobacillus kimchii.
There are hundreds of varieties of kimchi made with different vegetables. Traditional preparations stored kimchi underground in jars called onggi to keep cool, and unfrozen during the winter months. Onggi has a micro porous structure and assists in fermentation in food processing such as the preparation of fermented foods.
The origin of kimchi dates back at least to the early period of the Three Kingdoms, about 2,000 ago. Records of the Three Kingdoms, a 289 AD Chinese historical text, mentions that the Korean people “are skilled in making fermented foods such as wine, soybean paste and salted and fermented fish.”
People associate kimchi with hot foods. However, early records of kimchi don’t mention garlic or chili peppers. It became red in the late 16th century when chili peppers were introduced to Korea by Portuguese traders, although it was not until the 19th century that the use of chili peppers in kimchi was widespread. A 1766 book reports kimchi made with myriad ingredients, including chonggak radish, cucumber, and seafood and salted shrimp. Napa cabbage was only introduced to Korea at the end of 19th century and recipes from then closely resemble today’s kimchi.
The most commonly used kimchi vegetables are cabbages (Napa, bomdong, headed cabbages) and radishes (Korean radishes, ponytail radishes, gegeol radishes, young summer radishes). Other kimchi vegetables include: aster, balloon flower roots, burdock roots, celery, chamnamul, cilantro, cress, crown daisy greens, cucumber, eggplant, garlic chives, garlic scapes, ginger, Korean angelica-tree shoots, Korean parsley, Korean wild chive, lotus roots, mustard greens, onions, perilla leaves, potatoes, pumpkins, radish greens, rapeseed leaves, scallions, soybean sprouts, spinach, sugar beets, sweet potato vines, and tomatoes. It looks as if almost any vegetable can be used. We’re using Napa cabbage this time, but can’t wait to try other vegetables.
Seasoning is key. Korean sea salt is used mainly for initial salting of kimchi vegetables. It serves to help developing flavors in fermented foods. Commonly used seasonings include chili powder, scallions, garlics, ginger, and jeotgal (salted seafood). In Southern Korea generous amounts of stronger salted anchovies and salted hairtail is commonly used. Dozens of microorganisms are present in kimchi and aid in the fermentation process. We’re using Mama O’s kimchi vegan paste for our first batch. They also have a spicy version, but I want to test regular first. Both of hose pastes have fish paste. A regular version is available too.
First thing to do is get your equipment. Mama O’s kit has a ½ gallon wide mouth jug. It comes with 2 lids, on solid, one with a hole for an airlock, also included. Kitchen gloves, instructions, sea salt and a jar of kimchi paste is also in the kit.
You also need a large container to hold the cabbage while it soaks in 1 gallon of salted water. I used my 5 gallon brew pot. I also used a plate that fit inside and a smaller pot as a weight.
Other than that you need a good knife, a cutting board and a 5 lb. head of cabbage.
The cabbage has to be cut in quarters. I jabbed my knife in the middle and cut down to the root. Mama O’s video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3qKPtehayC0&list=LLNKwH5sUryrsCUy1cqZ0ieA&feature=mh_lolz, says to then just pull the two halves apart. Each half is cut the same way into quarters.
Quarters were cut into about 2 inch pieces and the root trimmed off the last part. All the cabbage was transferred into my 5 gallon pot. Next I took the salt and dissolved it in a quart of warm water, added 3 quarts and poured the salty water into the pot. That was yesterday. Today the cabbage has had a chance to soak in the brine.
Brining or pickling promotes chemical changes in the food product, one of the main reasons why foodstuffs are pickled in gastronomy. By brining or pickling, new flavors arise, the texture and color is also modified. Brining vegetables leads to a loss of crispiness, because cell walls weaken and can’t support the pressure, adding to that, the pressure is also lost due to osmosis. Indeed the cabbage is softer after 24 hours and the color has faded.
Next the cabbage is rinsed and the salt is washed off. This is the time to chop up some extra veggies. I just used scallions. I cut off the roots and chopped them into 1” pieces.
Then they’re mixed into the cabbage.
Now it’s time to get messy and mix in the kimchi paste. That’s what the gloves are for. Dig out the paste using your fingers or a spatula and drop it into the cabbage mix. Throw a bit of hot water in the jar; put the top back on and shake. Pour that on and mix everything up well.
Take the kit’s ½ gallon jug and stuff all the cabbage mix into the jug.
Put the lid with hole on and put in the airlock. Make sure the airlock has water to the fill line.
That’s where we are today. The kimchi will be ready to eat in a few days. Spring, summer and early autumn much kimchi is eaten early. In Korea, traditionally, many types of kimchi were prepared in early winter and stored in the ground in large kimchi pots to prepare for the long winter. So the greatest varieties of kimchi were available during the winter.
When a kimchi is not fully ripe, you can smell and kind of taste the individual ingredients – garlic, cabbage, radish, green onion, fish sauce, etc. – as are not fully integrated with each other. When fully ripened, tastes of the ingredients are well blended together. There is full flavor in each cabbage leaf or vegetable pieces, with a slight sour taste and zing at the end. Individual ingredients have a combined, wonderful smell unique to kimchi.
You can store your kimchi in the fridge for weeks to months depending on its temperature. In Korea they have special kimchi refrigerators. Kimchi will sometimes go bad. It can have a whitish of film and will also smell pungently sour. You don’t want to eat it at this stage.
In the Albany area the number of Korean restaurants is growing. There’s Seoul Restaurant in Latham, Sunhee’s Farm and Kitchen in Troy and a small place in the Troy food court. Seoul and Sunhee’s are full restaurants that we’d recommend. The food court is good, but very limited. There’s also Namu Korean BBQ, Kinnaree Asian Restaurant, Kabuki Korean Restaurant and Restaurant Saigon, which we haven’t tried.
The kimchi is now on our counter fermenting. Stop by in 3 or 4 days and try some. You can make your own too. Mama O’s kit is $39.95.