By Kate Payne
Photography by Jo Ann Santangelo
My kimchi days started a few years back in Brooklyn when our CSA program box overflowed with bok choy. Initially we marveled at the joy of such bounty, but as the weeks rolled on, our enthusiasm waned. To alleviate some of the pressure to eat bok choy for every meal, I scouted out a recipe for kimchi in my favorite pickling book, The Joy of Pickling.
I subbed bok choy for the Napa cabbage in the recipe, and soon our fall and winter dilemma was transformed into a prized digestive-assisting commodity.
A fermented relative of sauerkraut, kimchi is a Korean food dating back to the prehistoric era, and to say it’s played an important role in Korean culture would be a vast understatement. Proudly lauded as the national dish, kimchi has an entire museum in Seoul dedicated to it, and there are more than a hundred different kinds of the stuff—with variations on ingredients and methods based on region and family tradition.
Kimchi’s core elements include some sort of Chinese cabbage—common varieties include Napa, savoy, bok choy, michihili, choy sum—along with garlic, ginger, radish, green onions and a Korean red pepper powder (gochugaru). Some recipes from the coastal regions feature the addition of salted seafood, such as shrimp, oysters or octopus, while other regions call for sweet rice flour (mochiko) as the base of the flavoring paste or even the addition of sugar. Seasonal variations can involve the addition of fruits, regional wild edibles and even other vegetables. Regardless of the variation, though, the health benefits of eating kimchi are consistent. It’s known to boost immune response with beneficial, live-cultured bacteria, help us digest other foods and make nutrients more available than if consumed raw.
What I lack in cultural experience with kimchi, I make up for in devotion to this spicy cabbage delicacy. We eat it with eggs in the morning, tossed into fried rice or pasta and by the cupful straight from the jar. As an outsider to the world of kimchi traditions, I see it occupying a realm somewhat like a recipe for biscuits in the American South. Both Southern-style biscuits and kimchi recipes appear to be a simple list of ingredients with simple instructions, but when traditions get involved, there are myriad ways to carry out making the prized items; each sworn-by method produces a family’s unique and preferred taste. (Kimchi would be excellent atop a biscuit with braised pork shoulder, by the way.)
The method I use involves giving the cabbage a short soak in a salty solution to remove water. This also starts the fermentation process and firms the cell walls to allow for some crunch along with the zing. The spice paste flavors the vegetables during their short fermentation stage, at which point the kimchi goes into the refrigerator to slow down further fermentation. Don’t be surprised if the lid of the jar pops open after it’s been in the refrigerator; this stage of lacto-fermentation creates carbon dioxide as a byproduct and it can get trapped if the jar lids are on tightly.
Kimchi is extremely flexible. I’ve experimented with using sweet rice flour as a base for the spice paste and liked the results more than the version without it. Instead of seeking out the Korean pepper powder, I typically grind dried arbol or Anaheim chiles—seeds and all—in a spice grinder or with a Vitamix dry blade. Use any medium-heat red pepper, or opt for mild peppers to take down the heat level, but avoid using smoky peppers.