What Making Kimchi Taught Me (Recipe Included)

This post looks long, it is long, but remember that more than half of it is the recipes.

First, let me say for those that do not know me, I am neither Korean nor a Korean Chef.  I make no claim to being a chef in any culture, just a foodie that likes to eat the greatest food that has ever lived.  As I said in my bread baking post, I make things because I love them.  I lived in Hawai’i for several years and during that time I fell in love with many foods from all over the world.  Now living back in North Idaho, I have found some of those food options not readily available.  I have worked to find ways to make Poki, Katsu Sauce, Adobo, and most importantly, the great queen of all foods, Kimchi.  This spicy fermented cabbage is a life changing deliciousness that is both spicy goodness and very good for you.  The greatest kimchi’s are living things.  They can be eaten from the jar, or used as ingredients in other dishes.  Kimchi fried rice and delicious soups.  I close my eyes and dream of all the flavors captured in simple fermented cabbage.  If was faced with a sad truth, if I were to enjoy kimchi I must learn to make it.

My search for good Kimchi recipes took me along a path that covered blogs and friends, and friend’s parents.  Until finally I found a great book.  The book, “Eating Korean” by Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee is a great resource for any aspiring cook wanting to try all foods Korean.  To say I found it is a bit of a miss step.  A great friend and brother suggested it.

As in my last post on food I will end this post with the recipe I use.  I include a cucumber kimchi that I enjoy, and the traditional naga cabbage.  Now for those wanting a better understanding of the exact recipe I suggest the above-mentioned book.  I have modified the recipe as I am want to do.  So, I do not follow the book exactly, but it was a great base to start learning.  One cannot experiment until one understands how everything works.  I cannot recommend the book enough.

So right into business. What I have learned about myself in how I make kimchi.  Well let’s get a list of those things that I learned before we can delve in to what they mean both in my life and in kimchi making.

  1. Respect the experts
  2. Find what works not always what’s ‘right’
  3. Leave space to grow
  4. Give an outlet for pressure
  5. Trust it will work

As I said at the beginning of this post I am neither Korean nor a Korean chef.  I lived for years in a place where kimchi was not only readily available but there was a wide variety of options to choose from.  From fast food joints and gas station versions to gourmet and higher end versions.  My favorite was always the homemade styles one could find around at BBQs and home parties.  There is nothing like a good homemade kimchi.  For my friends, unlucky enough to have tried it I suggest imagining potato salad your mom made and the one bought at the store in a tub.  There is no similarity, and one must really try the good stuff.  After my years in food heaven, I moved back to North Idaho where for the first six months back I found no kimchi for sale.  Do not get me wrong Coeur d’Alene is one of the best cities to find oneself when looking for good food.  A slew of good options that any foodie can enjoy.  But kimchi was a rare option at the time.

After much pleading for those six months a local store started to order it but even after that I had only option which was a very mild version.  I kept at it though, and have seen the options increase over the years.  I really must thank the paleontological diet movement as they have sold much of the world on the greatness of kimchi.  With their increased discussion of the food more and more stores are starting to carry it.   But all of these versions were missing something.  I could not then tell you what, but I knew it in my taste buds.  I had more options, but it was still store bought in a tub.  I decided that since I could not find a stable source of great kimchi, I would create my own.  I really had no idea what I was getting into.

The hardest part was to just get a recipe.  I tried a few online and at least one from a local newspaper.  I brought back one from Hawai’i that I found in a store.  I failed them all, or they failed me, what’s important is that they were failures.  The many recipes found were all created by non-Koreans, which to be honest seemed odd.  If I was going to learn to make Sauerkraut from scratch I would ask an old German.  That might seem insensitive, but it just makes sense to me that the person who has spent their life making a thing is the expert you want to find.  Now as the world globalizes I am sure in years to come there will be more people crossing cultural boundaries to learn how to make things.  But we should all remember that as we learn it is good to respect the teachers that have continued to make these things for a lifetime.  I hope to never disrespect one that is teaching me these great foods from their family’s tables.

In life, we find experts that have been doing a job for most of their existence.  Sure, we have ideas on how something should be done, but these experts know it in their bones.  The key is to silence our own mind and open it to the experts.  As Plato said, we were created with only mouth but two ears, and that should guide us in how we live our lives.  My grandmother could make a pie or cook a ham without ever looking at a recipe book.  And when I wanted to know why my pies were not doing what they were supposed to do I asked her.  When I wanted to experiment, and use only honey and no sugar, I asked her.  She was an expert and if I wanted to learn how to do it correctly I asked her.  I did not ask her how a thing should be done by telling her my ideas.  I shut my mouth and listened.  My father was a small engine mechanic and he often helped me to work on engines.  If I wanted that machine to work I listened to him.  He was the expert, and I was learning.  Only after I learned from the experts could I start to form my own ideas.

I had to stop hearing my own voice and what I thought should be in the recipe or even where I could find it and ask someone who actually knows.  Luckily, I had a roommate in Hawai’i who is Korean American and has family that makes some of the greatest most amazing food I have ever had.  Imagine BBQed short ribs (I think called Gal-Bi but please do not kill me if I am wrong) that were things of beauty.   It is through Jason (the roommate) that I was directed to the book above as well as given several pointers on peppers and such.  I trusted in the experts and found my recipes.

In tension with the recipe, but another reason you need experts you can listen to, is that in cooking and in life you must often work with what you have.  I live in North Idaho, things like buchu and gochugaru are not easy to find here.  Now gochugaru is essential, so things like the internet are a great place to look.  Buchu though is not nearly as easy to find or as easy to ship.  One must ask the experts what can be used and where it can be found.  But as in life, we do not always find ourselves where we want to be on the map.  We cannot wish ourselves further along the path, or surrounded by things we do not have.  We must learn to make what we have work.  It is easy to give to up and say a thing cannot be done because I do not have buchu, but where is the fun in that?  When one does not have the proper tool, one must find a tool that works.  Remember that every tool was built by someone just like you.  The ingredients to a good dish were found and added by someone just like you.  There is no reason that when you do not have access to a tool or an ingredient you should not be able to come with a solution.  As I said solutions are what created the things we have today.  So, without buchu I found that some local forms of green onion and scallions will work in their place.  The final flavor changes slightly by the replacement, but sometimes that change is better, other times just adequate.  We do not always have the option to find the best ingredients, but we do always have the option to find what works.  There is no right or wrong way of doing things.  There are only things that work and things that do not.  Find ways to make sure things work with the tools at hand.

Next it is important to leave room to grow.  I learned the hard way that the jars of kimchi slowly liquefy and blend, and as they do so their bulk increases.  If you have not made sure there is room for it to grow then you get a sticky red mess all over your counter, not to mention lose whatever gets pushed out of the jar.  I have found the same in my life.  When I do not find areas for myself to grow into I make a mess.  Whether it is a change of jobs, find new experiences, or learn new things; I need to find pathways to grow.  I often think that people’s self-destruction comes because they have no way to grow.  Whether it is a glass ceiling they cannot break or a self-imposed restriction they hold to.  They push against the blockage and when they have nowhere to go everything that should have risen to the top will be wasted over the side.  If the world does not allow for growth the space will be filled to quickly and so much will be wasted.  The kimchi and myself need that space, because I do not like waste.

The next part will sound similar with the last, but it is not.  To leave an outlet for pressure to escape may appear like it is giving room to grow, but it is not.  The fermenting gases do not want to grow and add to your kimchi.  They want to escape.  It is not a matter of giving them room, it is the matter of giving them a route out.  Even if the jar is only half full the pressure can build and cause the lid to burst, or possibly even the glass.  I lost jars and a few lids over the last year by sealing too tightly or too early.  My life has been like this, humans need to vent.  If they allow pressure from all the things they think and feel to build up within them they will explode.  One must find their own outlet, their own way of allowing all that pressure to find release.  I have noticed many people try to force that pressure onto other people through conversations and such, but for me.  For me it is a personal thing that must be handled by each person individually.  Finding a way to release that pressure though is a must for a healthy life.

Lastly, I cannot stress this enough, trust it will work.  When I first added the mixture and the cabbage to the jars I was sure that I had not added enough mixture.  At the early stage, everything seems so white from the cabbage and not enough red.  I worried, how could this turn out how I wanted it?  I wanted it spicy and dark, and yummy.  But it looks like a jar with cabbage and some chunks.  It made me sad, unsure.  But low and behold within a few days the red had bubbled through the rest and dyed the whole mess in deliciousness.  I had to have faith and trust what I had done.  I put in the work, I did what was needed done, and now I just needed to trust it would all work out.  I am struggling with this one here and now with working to finish my novel and enter a new life I have to trust that the next step will take me through the other side.

 

Recipes

I have added my notes and what I use in the recipe.

Overall Notes

A thing to remember is that the cucumber kimchi soaks for 30 minutes and only ferments over the course of a day… roughly.  The cabbage kimchi soaks for 4 hours and ferments for about 3 days.  You want to cover the jars during the fermentation process, but not seal the jars.  The lids will pop otherwise.  I do like to periodically seal the lid and flip the kimchi around in this first few days, but that is just me.  Makes me feel like I am being useful and mixing the juices up.  I use smaller jars for the cucumber kimchi, and larger jars for the cabbage.  But that is just my preference.  Remember also that you can, if needed, eat the kimchi prior to the full fermentation.  If you do so, add some toasted sesame seeds and toasted sesame seed oil.

Its suggested for eating it uncooked you want to devour before 3 weeks (I have gone over a month though).  After this suggested time, it will start to get a vinegarier flavor (though it will not go “bad”).  This older kimchi is traditionally used for cooking as an added ingredient to recipes so as not waste it.  I usually eat and cook with it well before this time is up, but I have also eaten it from the jar well past the three weeks.  As I understand it, it is all about taste.

I have found Korean Cooking often cuts things at a diagonal rather than straight across.  I have no idea why.  But I do it.  I assume they have a reason, though I do not know it.  I do like the shape it gives to the final product.  So, assume that anything you cut you cut at a diagonal unless otherwise stated.

When dealing with hot peppers it is suggested one wears gloves.  This is because of potential pepper burns.  Anytime you cook with raw peppers that have real natural spice you may want to wear gloves.  Otherwise if the peppers are of the right spice level there will be blisters.  This goes for their plants as well if you raise them.  Honestly only my scorpion pepper plant has ever done this, so I usually forget, but you have been warned.

 

Cucumber Kimchi

Water

Salt

Sugar

Cucumbers.  (The book mentioned calls for 20 asian pickling cucumbers.   Honestly, I live in Idaho, no idea where to find these Asian pickling cucumbers in their tine beauty.  I have found the recipe works well with normal cucumbers and I go with only like 6 of them because they are so much bigger (I assume seeing as the book calls for so much more).  I might try 10 next time, as the mixture could accommodate it in my opinion.)

1 Bulb Garlic.  (I like a lot of garlic so I add more usually.)

1 Onion, diced, roughly medium sized (I like Walla Walla, but I have also enjoyed a nice Red Onion.)

2 Bunch Green Onions, cut into 1 inch lengths, cut diagonally.  (Note the recipe calls for Korean Chives (buchu), but I cannot find them fresh.  So, you can either do 1 bunch green onions and one bunch Korean Chives, or you can do what I do and just use two bunches of green onions.)

1/2 cup gochugaru (A Korean Pepper) (This is the standard amount.  I usually use more.  I really like it spicy).

1 daikon radish.   Peel it, grate about half, and chop the other half into 1 inch long-thin strips with the ends cut diagonally.  (Most recipes do not call for the radish in the cucumber kimchi, but I like the taste it adds.)

 

Dissolve 3/4 cup salt into a big old pan about a half-gallon of water.  Wash the cucumbers and put them in the water.  Let set about 30 minutes.  After 30 minutes rinse the cucumbers and cut off both ends.  Really rinse the cucumbers or the end result will be saltier then you may desire.  Now cut the cucumbers in half.  Cut in half lengthwise leaving about 1/2 inch at the end uncut.  Do it again.  This way you should have a cucumber piece that has four sections connected at the base.  Or you could think of it as four long pieces that are still attached at their base.

Mince the garlic, blender is good as well, but I like to use my hands when cooking not electric equipment.  Combine, garlic, onion, green onions, chili powder, 1 tablespoon salt, and one teaspoon sugar.  They suggest wearing gloves once you touch the mixture which you will do in the next part.

Take a cucumber piece and pull the four pieces apart gently.  Stuff the cucumber with the mixture, and put it in a jar.  Continue with this as you fill the jars.  I usually have to really cram them in.  I even usually cut one or two cucumbers a bit more to get them all to fit.  I usually get about three cucumber halves per large jar.  I normally make three jars.

Once the jars are filled with cucumbers I distribute the leftover mixture between the jars.  Make sure to leave about 2-3 inches empty because as it ferments the amount inside the jars will grow.  Too full and it grow right out of the jar.  Take 1 teaspoon of sugar dissolve into 1/3 cup water.  Distribute evenly between the jars.

You need to find a way to cover it without sealing it.  I have read to lightly close the lids of the jars but leaving space for air to escape (my attempt at this taught me I could not gauge the just right amount and I lost several jars and lids to pressure build up).  I have heard of paper towels (my one attempt using this method the batch was ruined; my superstition tells me not to try again).  I prefer to use cotton towels thrown over the jars with the lids used to weigh them down (though rubber bands could work as well).

Let it set for 24 hours, at which time taste it.  If it tastes good taste, tighten the lid and put it in the fridge.

 

 

Traditional Cabbage

Salt

Sugar

Water

2 heads Naga Cabbage (white and a little longer than normal cabbage)

1 Bulb Garlic (I like a lot of garlic so I add more)

1-2 Inch Piece of Ginger (I usually just break off as much that comes)

1/4 Cup Fish Sauce

1-2 Daikon Radish (Honestly, I like to use 2 but the recipe book calls for 1.)  Peel it, grate about half, and chop the other half into 1 inch long-thin strips with the ends cut diagonally)

1 Bunch Green Onions, cut into 1 inch lengths cut diagonally

1 Bunch Mustard Greens, cut in to roughly two inch pieces.  (Do not be worried with the leafy veggies and getting the cuts exact)

1/2 cup gochugaru (Korean Pepper) (This is the standard amount.  I usually use more, more is better 😊)

 

Ok so pretty much the recipe is all about hurry up and wait.  Cut the cabbage in about 2 inch wedges (give or take).  Cutting as a wedge gives a better shape, and mix of leaf styles and lengths when done (just as true for salads).  Take a cup of salt and stir it into a big pot of water.  I usually add salt until it tastes really bitter, like the crap my mom use to make me gargle when I was sick.  Soak the cabbage in this salt water about 4 hours.  Yup, you just dump in the cabbage, stir it around a bit and wait.  The cabbage will wilt a bit.  I stir it every once in a while, to ensure a good mix, but mostly to help me feel like I am doing something helpful.  The worst part of cooking for me is waiting while the ingredients do the work.

While this is happening, I blend the garlic, ginger, and fish sauce together.  You are supposed to use the blender to help create a paste.  But I hate machines, and I love how ingredients taste when there are still yummy bits.  Do help balance my personal feelings on this, I personally keep a bit of garlic and ginger and just chop it instead of paste it, this way the final product has a few nice chunks.

In a large bowl combine the radish, green onion, mustard greens, blended mixture, the peppers, 1 tablespoon salt, and 1 teaspoon sugar.  I do it about an hour before the cabbage is done, this way everything has time to mix in the bowl.

Once the cabbage is done, drain it, rinse it very well, and add it with everything else.  I really must insist you really really rinse it, my first batch was too salty.  My first batch tasted a bit too salty, mainly because I did not rinse as well as I could.  Once it is all rinsed mix everything together in a big bowl or pot.  Once everything is mixed, take handfuls and stuff them into jars.  Jars are great.  I like bigger jars, but that is because I eat it so fast.  I do usually use some smaller jars to give away.  I do this by hand, as it is easier and seems to mix better, but they suggest gloves if you do because of potential pepper burns.  Be sure to leave about two to three inches of empty space in the jars.  This is because as it all ferments and liquefies it will grow in the jar.  Like really grow, and it can create a very very big mess.

You need to find a way to cover it without sealing it.  I have read to lightly close the lids of the jars but leaving space for air to escape (my attempt at this taught me I could not gauge the just right amount and I lost several jars and lids to pressure build up).  I have heard of paper towels (my one attempt using this method the batch was ruined; my superstition tells me not to try again).  I prefer to use cotton towels thrown over the jars with the lids used to weigh them down (though rubber bands could work as well).

Once in the jar let it set for three days, at which time taste it.  If it is good to taste, tighten the lid and put it in the fridge.

 

I hope you enjoyed this post on what I have learned in making Kimchi, and if you did please feel free to read my similar post on bread, and my newest post on fry bread.  And feel free to comment on great ideas on making my favorite food taste better.

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