Jump to: Introduction History Ingredients Project: White Radish Kimchi Resources
This month we're tackling Korea's most loved culinary export: kimchi! We'll start with a surprising dash of history, get a tasty look into the world of microbiology, dispel (and confirm) a legend or two, and finish it all up with an easy recipe to delight your tastebuds.
If you're in NYC and would like to put your kimchi-making skills to the test, we're throwing a Dabbler kimchi party on Sunday, March 24th. You bring the vegetables and we'll take care of the rest!
More details and RSVP on the Brainery site
Kimchi, Your Favorite Rotten Cabbage
Just kidding, not rotten! Fermented.
Before modern refrigeration techniques, most every culture learned that salting vegetables helped preserve them for future months. The salt helps "good" bacteria grow, improving the vegetable's flavor and chasing away bad-tasting or poisonous microbes.
That's fermentation! Pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi all come out of this tradition. If we strip it down to the basics, kimchi is sauerkraut's spicy, full-flavored first cousin.
Kimchi vs. Kimchee
Why the multiple spellings? Thanks to something called transliteration, which is the process of converting between writing systems.
The Korean alphabet is called Hangul. It's pretty modern, and has an amazing history. Since kimchi is written as 김치, all we can do is attempt to reproduce the sounds using our alphabet. Kimchi and kimchee both fit the bill!
I know it's modern, but it doesn't normally have shooting stars and tiny cars in it. I just thought that font was the best style match!
A History Lesson
Kimchi has been made in Korea since around the 7th century. It originated as a way to preserve vegetables through the cold winter months; adding a bit of salt slowed decomposition and gave the preserved vegetables a unique tangy flavor.
Modern-day kimchi has a spicy kick, but it wasn't always that way. Chili peppers were a New World vegetable, not found in the rest of the world until Europeans brought them back from the Americas.
It took until the end of the 16th century before red peppers made their way into Korean cuisine. You can taste relics of the historical version of kimchi in white kimchi (a.k.a. baek kimchi) which doesn't use chili pepper powder.
Ever heard the urban legend about kimchi being made by burying cabbage in the backyard, then digging it up once it's rotten? Besides the rotting/fermentation mix-up, it's actually not so far-fetched.
Kimchi is usually made in large batches in autumn, as the cabbage harvest makes its way to market. Families, friends and neighbors get together to make massive amounts of kimchi in a process called kimjang. You can think of it as a kimchi party!
But once you've processed all this kimchi, where do you put it? It needs to be somewhere nice and cold so the fermentation doesn't occur too quickly, but you only have so much space in your fridge. The solution? Outside.
Large pots of kimchi are buried in the backyard where they wait out the cold winter months. It's like a big, free refrigerator!
Your Kimchi Pantry
So, what do you need to whip up a batch of kimchi?
Napa cabbage, also called Chinese cabbage, is a light and delicate cabbage that is the primary ingredient in most kimchi recieps. Much less tough than green cabbage, you should be able to find it in larger grocery stores.
White radish is also known as mul, daikon, or Japanese radish. A far cry from those tiny red radishes, an average daikon weighs around 3 pounds. They're prized for their crisp, refreshing texture and mild flavor.
Red pepper flakes, or gochugaru, is Korean red pepper powder. It's spicier than paprika but less spicy than cayenne - I wouldn't try to substitute!
Red pepper powder comes in two styles: fine and coarse. Fine is great for disappearing into soups and sauces, while coarse sits on top of the kimchi and gives it a nice speckled look. Either will work fine, though.
Fish sauce is, well, fish juice. Salted sardines are left to ferment in the sun, and once they've practically dissolved themselves the liquids are pressed out of them and bottled.
It might sound iffy, but if you've ever had Thai food, you've experienced fish sauce: it's what gives most every Thai dish a salty, full flavor!
Project: White Radish Kimchi
White Radish Kimchi, a.k.a. Kkakdugi
The most popular type of kimchi in Korea is called baechu kimchi, and is made of cabbage. It's fantastic, sure, but requires a long period of soaking and salting the cabbage before you can start the process.
Us Dabblers are all busy bees, so we're going to put together a quicker style - kkakdugi, or white radish kimchi, which is the second most popular style in Korea. If you're curious about cabbage kimchi, there's a recipe right over here.
- 4 cups (~1 lb) white radish
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1/4 cup red pepper powder, a.k.a. gochugaru
- 2 tablespoons green onion
- 1/2 tsp minced garlic
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon sugar
1. Cut radish into 1⁄2”–3⁄4” cubes. Toss with salt and let stand while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
2. Drain radishes, then mix with red pepper until you have some nice pink radishes.
3. Cut green onions to match radish cubes, then combine with ginger, garlic, fish sauce and sugar.
4. Combine everything, mixing well.
5. Place the mixture in an uncovered glass jar or fermenting crock.
6. Drape a cloth over the top to prevent dust or dirt from finding its way into your kimchi.
7. Let sit at room temperature for a day or two to let it begin fermenting, then move it into the fridge.
Time heals all foods
The sharp, sour note of kimchi is created during the fermentation process. While the radishes are sitting on your kitchen counter, little bacteria are chomping away at the sugars and turning them into lactic acid, which is the same substance that makes yogurt tart.
Over the course of the next two days the salt will draw moisture out of the radishes, causing the water level in the jar to rise. You might notice little bubbles in the water - this is fermentation in action!
Two days on the countertop is a pretty average amount of time to keep it out, but you can go shorter or longer based on how sour you'd like your kimchi to be. The longer it's out, the more time the bacteria have to work on the flavor.
Once you move the container into the fridge, the cold temperature puts the bacteria to sleep and stops the fermentation process. Well, almost stops it: the bacteria are still working, but very very slowly. Over the course of months, as the slow fermentation continues, you'll notice the kimchi get sharper and more sour.
Kimchi doesn't really go bad, it just stops being delicious. Don't like the flavor any more? Toss it!
It's said that young people like the sour note of months-old kimchi, while old folks really enjoy fresh day-old kimchi. When kimchi goes past its prime, it's a great chance to use it in soup or kimchi fried rice.
There are plenty of places out there to help you out with your kimchi mission.
You'd be surprised how common Korean grocery stores are, even in smaller towns. You can search on Yelp or Google Maps to find one near you. You can also find many of these ingredients in upscale grocery stores like Whole Foods.
Can't find a Korean grocery that's convenient to you? You'll want to stop by a supermarket for the vegetables, and the Internet has you covered for the more exotic ingredients: coarse red pepper flakes from Amazon and fish sauce from importfood.com.
A Korean Mother's Cooking Notes is a fantastic, fantastic book for learning Korean cuisine, including kimchi-making. I have a floppy ol' paperback, but it looks like they recently came out with a fancy expanded hardback version which sounds quite a bit nicer.
The Kimchi Cookbook was put together by Mother-In-Law Kimchi, based right out of New York City. Sixty recipes for or using kimchi, from old standbys to modern takes.
Maangchi.net doesn't only have recipes and videos, but also a section on ingredients with pictures, write-ups and brand suggestions. If you're looking for a deeper dive into Korean cuisine without going the dead-tree route, it's well worth a visit!
And there you have it it.
If you're in NYC we hope to see you at our Dabbler Kimchi Party, but otherwise we'll see you all next month. Keep dabbling!