Homemade sauerkraut is cheap, delicious and customizable, and in its own way, fun. But the process smells really bad. Until I design an animal-proof, outdoor kraut fermenter I think my days of doing it at home are finished. But what about sauerkraut’s Korean cousin, kimchi? It only needs one to two days of room temperature fermentation before being tightly-sealed and refrigerated. That means that even though kimchi usually includes a fermented fish product it’s cost in terms of smell pollution is much lower.
Several months ago the guys from Paupered Chef, Nick and Blake, had a great series of posts where they compared their kimchi results in search of the ultimate recipe. I was curious and decided to try and create my own version based on attributes of each of theirs. Eric Vellend also had a couple articles in The Star about kimchi as a restaurant trend in Toronto and his recipe.
First the terminology: In the Momofuku cookbook David Chang writes that napa cabbage kimchi is paechu kimchi and radish kimchi is kakdugi. The principle ingredient in my adaptation is cabbage but korean radish is also included so I guess it is paechu kakdugi kimchi.
Chang also offers a guideline for when homemade kimchi is at its best saying that the two-week mark is usually right when it’s on the cusp of getting really strong. This shorter consumption window also points to one of the great uses for kimchi: half cabbages. Cabbages, especially the non-organic ones, are huge. So, after serving one half a certain way (in my case as cold rolls before Christmas) the rest can be preserved.
There is a chain of Korean grocery stores called H-Mart that Chang refers to in his book and that Nick and Blake refer to on their site. I’m lucky to have one of the scaled-down outposts in my neighbourhood and was able to find Korean radish, chili powder (gochugaru), salted shrimp, and Korean pear there. I also picked up a small container of their store-brand kimchi as a baseline comparison.
(I’ll count the appreciative nod of respect from the store’s employee when he heard I was making my own kimchi as an added bonus.)
I have to agree with Nick’s assessment that the problem with some of these specialised cooking projects is that they don’t necessarily yield a product that is better or appreciably cheaper than what’s available at the store.
Compared to the store brand kimchi I’m happy to say that I like mine better. My homemade version has the same properly fermented flavour and correct level of spiciness that the store brand has but mine has a better, more complex texture and really cool interaction between the funky fish flavour of the salted shrimp and the cleansing jolt of heat from the fresh ginger. On my next trip to H-Mart I’ll have to look for name brand kimchi.
This was my first experience making kimchi so I won’t offer a full recipe (other than saying that you can’t go wrong adapting from Nick and Blake’s recipes) but I do have some early insights. First, texture is paramount because funky and fermented are great so long as they’re balanced by a cool crunch. To this end err on the large side for the pieces of scallion (one-inch sticks seems about right) and the finer sticks of radish are important.
The other accidental discovery I made comes from following a pretty obvious line of observation. Each leaf of Napa cabbage is divided between a white part and a green (more yellow towards the centre of the head) section. The white is crunchy, the green is softer and these characteristics only become more distinct after two plus weeks in the kimchi jar.
I discovered this sort of haphazardly because I was using a 500ml (pint) jar and two litre (quart) jars and the more rigid white parts were very difficult to shove into the smaller jar so it ended getting more of the green and other softer ingredients. By chance I ate the kimchi from the small jar first and while good it was softer, more heavily fermented and tasted quite strongly of seafood but even after the two-week mark (named by Chang as the point at which kimchi separates beginners from connoisseurs) the kimchi in the large jars still has a refreshing crunchy texture.
So, my idea: If you’re not going to use the whole head why not lop off the top third to half of the cabbage, braise it or use it in a stir fry, and then preserve the bottom, crunchy half as kimchi. Obviously, this won’t work for those following an authentic tradition of making enough to feed family members a half-pound of the stuff every day–all winter–but in smaller batches I think it would be a sort of best-of-both-worlds solution.
I have a bunch of salted shrimp and chili powder left so this will definitely not be my last encounter with kimchi. Plans are still in the early stages but I’m hatching some ideas for unusual kimchis. Where I think this method will really come into its own for me is as a way to brighten local winter produce.