Kimchi: The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Even though he thought that *N SYNC was a TV show, my dad happens to be ahead of the curve and tends to catch onto things way before they’re popular, then tries to get people interested in them.

About 15 years ago, he was taking some classes that happened to have a lot of students from Korea who were learning abroad, and he told me about their food, saying that it was going to become big. And to that, I gave him my usual reply, just like when he said that one day the world would run out of water (when I was 5) and I should get into the food industry (many times over the years).

“Dad, you’re crazy!”

Often times, though, he’s right, it just takes a long time for everyone to figure out. Today, I happen to love Korean food and think that South K is knocking out some pretty cool and groundbreaking stuff, especially movies (and computer addiction rehab camps). Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, and The Host are some of my favourite movies, and Thirst is on my to-see list.

So, a bit over a year ago, Angel Cake (not her real name) joined our team at the store. She’s from South Korea and I remember one of the first conversations we had was about the awesomeness of kimchi (fermented cabbage) gyoza and Park Chan-Wook. Angel Cake was so excited to have a new friend who actually knew something about her home, and her birthday was last month, so I watched a few Youtube videos and read a book to learn how to make kimchi as a present.

There are different varieties and methods for seasons and regions, but a typical jar at Asian supermarkets will have core ingredients like chopped napa cabbage and daikon radish (AKA sui choy and lo bak in Chinese cuisine), with chili (powdered, fresh, or both), to give that famous reddish-orange tinge, and combos like green onions, garlic, ginger, shrimp paste, and fish sauce, for flavour.

Leaving these ingredients to ferment (break down, with the help of microorganisms) actually kicks their nutritional power into high gear and the end result is a snack/side that is full of vitamin C, fiber, and good bacteria, which is a huge boost for people who are feeling low-energy. I’m a garlic addict but hate eating the stuff raw, even if it has health benefits, and refuse to pick up “garlic powder capsules”, so this here is a solution. The flavour mellows out a little but you can still tell that it’s around!

Fermented vegetables are often paired with other dishes to make foods easier to digest, like kimchi and kalbi (Korean short ribs) or sauerkraut and schnitzel (flattened, breaded, fried meat that is popular in Austria and Germany). Who knew that there was a science behind it? Speaking of which, according to Wikipedia…

“Kimchi is so ubiquitous to Korean cuisine that the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) developed space kimchi to accompany the first Korean astronaut to the Russian-manned space ship Soyuz.”

There is an organization with my name on it, that figured out how to send awesome food into space? Sounds good to me!

Anyway, I was aware that kimchi was a popular food in K-Town, but didn’t fully get how popular it was before deciding to make some. Not only did it get sent into space, but people in Korea get Kimchi bonuses, like Christmas bonuses, to go out and buy this stuff (if they feel like it!)! If you’ve never tasted it before, I’d recommend grabbing a bite. You might want to have a glass of milk on hand, though, if you can’t take spicy foods.

If you would like to make kimchi, too, there are a few things you might want to pick up if you don’t already have them kicking around.

  • A large glass jar (or a few medium ones) without a skinny neck, or a pitcher or coated ceramic crock. A lot of fermented foods sit in these while working their magic.
  • One or two large, non-reactive bowls. Dollar stores are a haven for funky-coloured, giant plastic bowls and those will do just fine. If they don’t give you cancer.
  • A new pair of rubber/latex gloves! Yes, you can stir the cabbage and spicy paste around, but don’t be lazy about it. You really need to squish the cabbage and massage paste in there, and crush everything into the container so it sits under the level of liquid. Do you want to have to wash your hands 5 times to avoid chili eyeball and still risk getting it anyway? Be careful, by the way, if you use latex gloves because people with latex allergies can get sick from the residue left in food.
  • A thermometer is handy to keep around, to measure the room temperature. Hot rooms will make the food spoil quickly, and the best temperature is somewhere between 18 to 21°C.

Keep in mind that this recipe takes a couple of days, and I made it up according to taste. You might like more or less of this or that, but remember the salt and sugar are needed to help preserve. If adding shrimp paste/dried shrimp/anchovy paste/fish sauce/apple/ya pear, take that into account when working out flavours/salt/sugar levels etc.

Kari’s Dragon Breath Kimchi
Yields about 6 to 8 cups of fiery deliciousness

1 large head of napa cabbage/sui choy (just under 3 pounds)
1 large daikon radish/lo bak
6 tablespoons kosher salt
2 green onions

Paste Ingredients

1 medium onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1 head’s worth of garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1/4 cup peeled ginger, roughly chopped
8 skinny, small red chili peppers (Thai dragon or bird’s eye)
2 tablespoons Korean ground chili pepper or cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon white sugar

1. The first day of kimchi-making is all about prepping your main vegetables however you like. I cut my cabbage into bite-sized chunks, somewhere between an inch or two, and cut the half of the daikon radish into cubes about 1 cm big, and grate the rest for a difference in texture. After grating the radish, squeeze out all the water so it won’t dilute the brine.

2. Soak the vegetables together in salty water (I did them separately, to check the taste) for 12 to 24 hours. The goal is to get these wilty-soft, and full of sodium so they won’t go bad. I did 10 cups of water and 6 tablespoons (just over 1/3 cup) of salt for each vegetable and found that they both taste all right with the same amount of salt for 24 hours, so it’s okay to combine them.

This recipe starts out with a lot of cabbage that shrinks in the brine, so feel free to weigh it down with a plate to keep it submerged in the water, and be careful if the water level gets too high! Bailing out your kitchen is a nuisance.

Daikon radish.

Napa cabbage.

3. On the second day, rinse the cabbage and radish thoroughly (2 or 3 times) to get rid of the rest of the salt, then squeeze out the water and let everything sit in a strainer while you get the spicy paste ready.

Drain out!

4. You can either add the green onions to the paste ingredients so they get blended up, or slice and add them to everything after (I cut them up about 3 mm thick). Get the garlic, onion, ginger, chili powder, chili peppers, sugar, and 1 more tablespoon of salt in a blender and blitz them until you have a fine paste (put the gloves on when handling the peppers, and take them off before touching anything else). Add a little water and use a spatula to clean the sides of the blender cup down if you have to, so it becomes smooth. It’s probably not a good idea to open the lid facing towards you and stick your head in there for a nice big smell right when finished. It might be like the food equivalent of getting pepper-sprayed.

No sneezing.

5. Transfer the vegetables and paste to a large bowl, put the gloves back on, and really squish the paste into them.

6. Pack everything into the jar/jars/crock/pitcher/whatever you have and weigh the solids down with a plate/heavy glass/whatever fits in there and keeps everything submerged in the liquid. If food pokes out, it will spoil faster and could make somebody ill. Some people say to cover the whole operation with a lint-free towel. I do it to keep anything from falling in, but have been taught that it doesn’t really have a use, like keeping light out. Also, don’t let things ferment on top of the fridge. It’s too warm there and the vibration might cause your jar/whatever to shatter if there are any hairline cracks or dings that you can’t see.

I used a large, shallow glass baking dish, and kept saran wrap right on top to keep air out, then squished it down with weights.

7. Check the room’s temperature every day. If it’s warm, find a space in a low cupboard that you can tuck the kimchi away in, for between 5 to 21 days. The smell and flavour change as it ferments, so it’s up to your own personal taste (smell and try a piece every day). You might see little bubbles or a thin layer of foam forming on top of everything. Skim the foam off and you’re all right.

8. When you think the kimchi tastes good, it’s ready. If you’ve packed it into glass mason jars, you can screw the lids on, but only put them on finger-tight (juuuuust tight enough so there’s a seal but you can undo the lid with your finger tips), or cover the jar mouth with saran wrap and a loose rubber band, or keep it in a plastic food container that has a tiny opening (or a corner just a teeny bit loose).

It needs to breathe a little. Ever notice when you open a big container of yogurt and use some, that later the lid is a bit puffy in the center? Good bacteria at work. If you keep the lid on tight, kimchi water might gush all over the inside of your fridge when the pressure builds up, especially when it’s full, leaving you puzzled, thinking your roommate got hammered and knocked a bunch of things over. True story!

Angel Cake's prezzie.

It’ll be good for a long time in the fridge, at least a month, but it’s good enough not to stick around for that long! This was really fun to learn about and I had a garlic-smelling lab experiment going on in my kitchen for under $15! Sweet!

Try adding kimchi to dumpling filling (like the gyoza from earlier), noodle dishes, rice rolls, fried rice, stir fries, sushi, hash browns, scrambled eggs, omelets, pizzas, sandwiches, tofu dishes, ripped-up green onion pancakes with BBQ pork or Chinese sausage (my favourites!), or serving them with ribs, anything that would taste great with a little fire. Aaah, I’m hungry now!

I freaked out a little bit and thought that something was wrong because there was no bubbling action in the glass pan (“Gasp! Botulism?”), and brought a sample to a fermenting foods course at Radha Yoga & Eatery. Chef Andrea Potter graciously told me that it was all right (the oxygen escaped easily because the kimchi was spread out in a shallow pan) and we tasted it together, figuring that there were enough people around to dial 9-1-1 if we both fell violently ill. It was safe, so I gave the rest of the little tub to a classmate who was volunteering at the course.

Apparently, if fermented food goes off, it will let you know. It will smell bad. In my imagination, it’s the corpse of a person who ate an entire caseload of Hot Pockets and canned sardines, then fell into a garbage crusher at the dump and was discovered 2 months later by the CSI: Vegas team in the middle of summer.

On a more optimistic note, Angel Cake was very impressed by her gift, which was a good sign! More was shared with friends and one of the chef instructors at Northwest (who said he can eat kimchi until he’s blue in the face). I didn’t keep very much for myself, wanting motivation to kick-start another batch, probably with more chili powder to make it redder.

If Dad comes to Vancouver for a visit, I’ll have to make this for him!

Eat well!


This entry was posted in Appies & Sides, Asian, Gluten-free, Healthy, Vegan, Vegetarian, Whole Wheat & Fibertastic and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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