Kimchi Confidential

October 7th, 2009

Update: October 6, 2010. Today, on their popular Morning Edition broadcast, National Public Radio featured news of a kimchi crisis. NPR’s Asia correspondent reported a serious kimchi shortfall in South Korea– due to a poor harvest season for the requisite Napa cabbage. Our comment ten months ago (see below) that “kimchi…is inexpensive to make…” still holds true for us in North America. Meanwhile, inside Korea, this staple food has soared in price .

Listen here to learn about Koreans’ passion for kimchi, and the sacrifices they’ll make to continue to enjoy South Korea’s national side-dish.

Google KIMCHI, KIMCH’i or KIMCHEE and you’ll not only get recipes for what you thought was merely a pickle, but you’ll learn a lot about how a people defines its national culture through food. The countries of North and South Korea are certainly divided on many issues, but no one disputes that pungent force which is a shared love of kimchi.

Photo Copyright © 2009, Skip Lombardi

So why, aside from the fact that the most widely-known kimchi sports our holiday colors of red, white, and green, are we writing about kimchi now, two days before Christmas?

Need an almost last-minute gift for the gastronomes on your holiday list?

Slightly fermented Napa cabbage kimchi, not only packs a punch, but it’s quick and inexpensive to make. And at this chilly time of year, even in Florida, you don’t have devote precious refrigerator real estate to shelving it. Just make it and deliver to your lucky recipients. (Then THEY can find a cool place to store it, if they don’t devour it within a day or two.)

So, what if you have NO TIME AT ALL? This staple of any Korean pantry can be bought fresh from our local Korean shop in Gulf Gate. Better still, the shop sells everything—including the cabbage—that you need to make kimchi yourself, so that you can adjust the levels of salt, fermentation and chili-heat, as well as the other seasonings, to suit your own taste. If you do make it yourself, just be sure you allow at least 12 hours to wilt the cabbage before you intend to pack it into jars.

Kimchi can be made from scores of different vegetables, fruits, wild greens, and even seafood. Online, you’ll discover hundreds of recipes—in English, Korean, and several other languages.

Today, we offer our very basic kimchi simply as an antidote to all the sweet gift food that floods our larders in late December:

Napa Cabbage KIMCHI

One large head of Napa cabbage (approximately 4 pounds)
Salt (at least 1/2 cup)
8 kumquats or 1 large lemon (optional)
1/4 lb fresh, firm ginger-root
4 scallions (including green tops)
6 cloves of garlic, sliced lengthwise in thirds
2-3 Tbsp Asian fish sauce (such as nuoc mam)
1/2 tsp dark sesame oil (optional; it adds a smoky flavor)
1/4-1/2 Cup Korean-style coarse red pepper flakes; medium heat (or to taste)

NOTE: Korean-style red pepper is available in Asian groceries in 1-lb bags. Reasonable substitutes include other sweet-hot pepper flakes: Antep pepper (from Turkey), Aleppo pepper (from Syria), and Hungarian paprika. Taste a little before you decide how much to add to the kimchi. Antep and Aleppo pepper contain salt, so you may need to to dilute the liquid when you pack the kimchi into jars.

Remove and rinse any loose, outer leaves from the head of cabbage. Squeeze them out and pat them dry with a kitchen towel. Trim off and discard any discolored parts of the leaves or the full head. With a large, sharp knife or cleaver, cut the loose leaves into large pieces and quarter the entire Napa head lengthwise. Cut each quarter across into thirds.

Separate the leaf chunks into a very large, non-reactive bowl and mix with the salt—by hand or with 2 wooden spoons—so that each piece of leaf has a gritty coating of salt. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it sit in a cool place for at least 12 hours.

Assemble a few large, clean, lidded glass jars and a roll of plastic cling-wrap.

Uncover the bowl. The leaves should be wilted and greatly reduced in volume. Pour off and reserve any accumulated liquid. Take handfuls of the leaves and squeeze them to release more liquid. Pour that off and add to the reserved liquid.

Slice the kumquats in half and remove the seeds.

If using a lemon, remove any seeds and slice into thin half-moons.

Julienne the scallions into match-stick lengths.

Rinse and slice the ginger into dime-sized pieces (no need to peel it).

Toss the sliced garlic with all the ingredients above and then add the chili pepper and a few drops of sesame oil. Toss the leaves so that they are evenly coated with the chili flakes.

Using a pair of tongs, begin to pack a jar with the leaves, pressing them in so that there is little room for air. For aesthetics, try to put a a few pieces of kumquat or lemon and the brighter green leaves and scallion tops towards the outside of the jar. Pack the jar firmly with cabbage to within 1/2 inch of the top. Repeat with another jar until you have used all the cabbage mixture.

Taste the reserved salty water poured off the wilted cabbage. If you find it pleasantly salty and a little tangy, great; you can use it as it is. If it is unpleasantly salty, dilute with up to one third plain cold water until YOU like the taste. Now, pour some of this liquid back into each jar, pressing down the cabbage to release any air pockets.Be sure that all the contents are covered with liquid and nothing is floating to the top of any jar.

Cut a double square of plastic wrap and place it over the jar opening so that it covers it completely and extends an inch beyond. Place lid over the plastic wrap and secure tighly. ( If you need an instant hostess gift, you could give the kimchi away at this point, but it is better to wait another 12-36 hours.) Read on….

Put the jars on a non-reactive tray or plate and let them sit at room temperature for at least 12 hours. The contents will begin to ferment and the liquid may rise and leak from the top of the jars, collecting on the tray. If the smell bothers you, simply rinse off the jars and tray as the liquid collects. After 24 hours, open one jar and remove a little of the cabbage to taste. If you like what you have, slow down the fermentation by refrigerating the jars. (It’s a good idea to keep a saucer under each as long as the jar is full.) If you prefer a more sour flavor, allow the fermentation to continue at room temperature. Keep tasting until you reach a balance of salty and sour that pleases you, then refrigerate the pickle.

Serve as a condiment with grilled poultry or meat. A few spoonfuls of kimchi will transform a bowl of steamed rice or Asian noodles.

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