Last summer I wrote a post extolling the cultural significance that kimchi held for me. Upon reflecting on my own history, I felt it would be appropriate to make my own kimchi, both as a cultural affirmation as well as a tangible link to my ethnicity. Washed down with a little soju, it would serve as a Korean-adoptee Eucharist, if you will: a rite of cultural identity awareness and reminder of where I came from.
For those not familiar with kimchi, it is Korean spicy fermented cabbage. Fermentation takes place as a result of lactobacilli converting the sugars of the cabbage (and any other vegetables in the kimchi) into lactic acid. The lowered pH created by the presence of lactic acid preserves the vegetables by destroying bad bacteria that would otherwise lead to decomposition and spoilage—the same chemical process that occurs when making sauerkraut. The active lactobacilli also gives kimchi the added benefit of probiotics, which aid in digestive health and may help boost the immune system and ward off infection. The end result is delicious—crunchy, briny, spicy, sour. Though, to some, kimichi may be a bit of an acquired taste, as the fermentation process leaves the vegetables with a pungent odor and slightly sour, yet complex flavor profile.
While I had toyed with the idea of making my own kimchi, my own laziness and paranoia of food poisoning prevailed; the only kimchi I had eaten in the past year had been either store-bought or ordered from restaurants. This past summer, however, a chance perusal of the Internet lead me across a picture posted by Landon Proctor: it was of a jar of kimchi he had just made and it looked delicious. We discussed the process briefly and he sent me the recipe. I couldn’t procrastinate any longer (though I still managed to: it took me a few months after receiving said recipe before I actually made it). I adapted the ingredient list to my own taste, though please note, all proportions are approximations and are dependent upon personal preference, such as amount of hot peppers, garlic, and ginger. You are also welcome to add other vegetables, such as carrots, radishes, scallions, etc.
1 head napa cabbage
½ daikon radish
4 cloves garlic
6 tbsp grated fresh ginger
hot peppers (I used serrano peppers a friend had given me)
Chop the cabbage and radish and soak in brine (I used approximately 1 tsp kosher salt per 1 cup of water) for about 2 hours. In the meantime, crush garlic, ginger, and peppers into a paste. (My own attempt at making a paste fell a little short, with the result being a finely diced mixture; more like a salsa than a paste, though still tasted good in the final product.)
When cabbage and radish are done soaking, drain brine (reserve) and taste vegetables; if they are too salty, give them a quick rinse. Add the onion (sliced) and pepper paste mixture to the cabbage and radish. Mix thoroughly with hands (using gloves is advised for both cleanliness and to avoid any burning that may result from the peppers). Pack tightly into a clean glass jar, leaving about an inch or two at the top. Pour enough reserved brine into jar to cover the vegetables. At this point you will need something to weigh down the vegetables and keep them submerged. Another clean, smaller jar will work, as will a sealed plastic bag filled with the left over brine (in case the bag is punctured, this will ensure that the brine doesn’t become diluted). Don’t put a lid on the jar, as the gas created during fermentation will need to escape, though you’ll need something like a towel to cover the top to keep dust and other unwanted particles out.
Let the kimchi sit in a cool place for several days (I left mine out for about three days); when fermentation is complete, you can place a lid on the jar and store in the refrigerator. One thing to keep in mind regarding where you allow the kimchi to ferment: it will create an odor that some may find unpleasant. I personally don’t mind, as it helps assure me that fermentation, and not rotting, is occurring.
UPDATED: I have updated my kimchi-making process here: