In Korea, kimchi is a passion. Back in the day, Korean women would fill giant pots with kimchi and bury them up to their necks and eat the kimchi over the winter. Today, special refrigerators are sold for the sole purpose of keeping kimchi. Koreans are just wild about their kimchi, and for good reason. It helped keep them alive over long winters in years past. Being a fermented vegetable, it’s filled with nutrition. And hey, it’s darn tasty. Kimchi, gim chi, kim chee however you want to spell it in English, it’s a worthy endeavor.
My Korean tutor Tess and I have been discussing kimchi as I shared with her some of my pickling experiments. When she asked me again if I was going to try to make it, I said absolutely. The next thing I knew I was up to my ears in a veritable kimchi to go kit. Tess gave me just the right kind of cabbage, daikon, hot pepper powder, fish sauce, green onion, salt and a starch (flour and water mix) that she likes to use to thicken the sauce. Along with a loose set of instructions, she gave me a sample of her own kimchi which I prompty ate.
I had no more excuses. I was going to become master of my kimchi.
My Joy of Pickling book has a recipe for kimchi in it. As I sorted through my ingredients and tried to figure out my head from my tail, I ended up doing a bit of a combination between Tess’s instructions and the ones from my book. The first step is to brine the cabbage. I cut the head of cabbage in half and mixed the salt with the water. The amount of water Tess told me was no where near enough to cover the cabbage in the vessel I had (a giant steel mixing bowl). The book instructions used a lot less salt, so decided to split the difference and just poured more water over the cabbage. I weighted the cabbage down with a plate and a water-filled jar. There it sat for about six hours.
When the cabbage was done brining, I pulled it out, washed it and squeezed the water out of it. I then cut it in quarters. Tess says that good kimchi has to have the proper shape – long quarters of cabbage with the sauce stuffed in between the leaves. Since I didn’t want to disappoint her, I would do it the proper way!
I assembled the sauce: the starch mixture, slightly heated, a huge amount of the red pepper powder, the fish sauce and a little bit of sugar. I sliced and diced the daikon as per Tess’s instructions. I mixed everything together and was ready to stuff. Tess recommended using gloves to handle the kimchi because of the heat of the peppers. Recalling the time I put in contact lens with a jalapeno-laced finger, I put on some gloves.
Stuffing was actually easier than I expected. The brine made the leaves pliable so I could pull back a leaf, rub the vegetable-sauce mix on the leaf and move onto the next. The real challenge came once the cabbage quarter was stuffed – getting it into the jar. All I had to use was a gallon jar, so I had to maneuver the piece through the relatively small opening and position it in the jar. Since it’s glass and therefore you can see through it, I also wanted it not to look like poo.
Once all four quarters were stuffed and positioned, I filled in some of the spare space with daikon cubes and pressed down on the whole thing to get it compacted a little. It sure seemed like there was a lot of empty space. I know oxygen is an enemy of fermentation so that made me nervous. So I made up a quick brine and poured in enough to fill most of the gaping holes. Bad form? Maybe. I won’t tell if you won’t.
Tess told me to leave it at room temperature for 24 hours. The book said 3 to 6 days. So I left it for 2 1/2 days. It was very cool. I could see bubbles coming up as the fermentation started. Sometimes I could hear the bubbles. I don’t know if that’s supposed to happen, but it was awesome.
When I finally gave it a taste-test, I was pleasantly suprised. It didn’t suck. It wasn’t as good as Tess’s, that much I could tell, but it wasn’t bad at all. But it didn’t matter what I thought. The real test would come a few days later when I gave Tess the taste test on our weekly sushi trip.
First of all, most of the employees at the sushi/hibachi place test subject Bill and I go to every week are Korean. So they know their kimchi. Tess was very excited when I showed up with my sample. She finished making her sushi roll and grabbed the container. She announced that it looked good. Her husband laughed, as he usually does whenever I attempt anything Korean. (I get laughed at a lot…) But I made a believer out of them both. Tess tried it and said, “It’s good! It’s amazing!” Her husband tried it and he, too, was amazed. Then one of the waitresses tried it so she could share in the amazement. I heard Tess saying something about she’d never seen an American be able to make good kimchi.
And that’s why they call me The Kung Fu!