Just like movies, cars and hourglass figures, they don’t make pickles like they used to.
Found in just about every national cuisine, fermentation was probably discovered accidentally thousands of years ago, when something sugary was left to rot and ended up as a delightfully sour, mildly alcoholic treat. The fact that it additionally preserved both plant and animal matter and promoted health was likely enough to convince cavemen to begin intentionally fermenting things, and thus began mankind’s long-lived affair with the pickle.
Unfortunately, the advent of refrigeration, mass production and other detrimental conveniences gave manufacturers a wonderful idea: why bother going through the bothersome and occasionally unpredictable stages of fermentation when you can just fake the tang with a vinegar and sugar solution? Why indeed! Soon consumers, unbeknownst to themselves, were sucking up all things faux-fermented, and now the vast majority of sauerkraut, gherkins and piccalilli gracing the supermarket shelves are sad and insipid versions of the real thing.
It happened in Japan, too: once abhorred for its strong smell, kimchi is now the most popular pickle in the country. Yet the Japanese version–known as kimuchi–is often made without even being fermented, with citric acid added for the characteristic tang. This sacrilege might have caused less stinky-breath shame for the Japanese and the countries they exported it to, but it brought about a different kind of embarrassment when it caused a trade spat with Korea, whose reaction was much like Italy’s would be if the U.S. put spreadable parmigiano in aerosol cans and flouted it to the rest of the world as the best thing since sliced Velveeta.
Having already suffered the indignity of the derisive putdown “kimchi-eaters” and “garlic breath”, the Koreans bit back at the Japanese, claiming that Japan would forever soil the international reputation of their beloved dish.
So friends (family, countrymen), I implore you! Do the right thing and make your own–taste it before the fake Japanese kind graces your table. Proper pickles are natural probiotics, bursting with lactobacilli, meaning that you don’t have to shell out for pricey tablets or sugar-filled yogurts, and the Koreans even swear that it can prevent cancer.
Plus, there’s an added pleasure in starting up a collection of stinky jars that bubble menacingly in your pantry. It’s not as hard as making bread–just chop, salt, mix, wait–and yet you will swell with pride like a freshly yeasted loaf when your cabbage baby is born. Your family members might be scared at first that this monster, which seems to be actually breathing, might swell to monstrous proportions and tear out of its glass encasement, engulfing them in their sleep like a spicy version of The Blob, but allay their fears by fighting the inflated mass back into its liquid with a metal spoon.
It makes sense to make kimchi the first station on your fermentation journey because it goes with everything, like ketchup. Yet unlike that Malaysian-British concotion, it’s good for you. As a staple of the Korean diet, it’s provided freely at restaurants throughout the country (except during times of cabbage shortages). When it’s fully fermented you can slather it on meat or fish, stick it in sandwiches or stir it through omelettes…or simply eat it with rice, topped with a fried egg. And don’t be too scared that the prodigious amounts of chili, garlic and fish sauce will play havoc with your breath and lose you friends: consider your exhalations adverts rather than warnings, and the world will smile upon you.
- 2 large Chinese or Napa cabbages (whatever you call them, preferably the crisp, white, veiny oblong ones–rather than your average round Western cabbage)
- 1 large white radish- you may know it as either daikon or mooli.
- 2 carrots
- 2 leeks
- 1 bunch of scallions
- Variations include adding peeled pears and cucumbers.
- 1/3 cup rice flour
- 3 cups water
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 2 cups Korean chili pepper
- 1 cup garlic, pureed (or paste)
- 1-2 tbsps ginger, pureed (or paste)
- 1 cup fish sauce
1. Firstly, set aside some time. Remember, most of the time when you’re cooking, you’re dealing with something that’s dead, and you make it even deader by cooking it. With kimchi, you’re making the culinary equivalent of Frankenstein–e.g. creating life out of something dead–therefore it takes a few hours. Four hours in the middle is just waiting but you’ll need about an hour of prep and then about 20 minutes after that.
2. Chop the cabbage into tiny bite size pieces and put in a bowl (with as much as you have, you might need several bowls). Soak it in water for about two minutes, then drain thoroughly and sprinkle liberally with salt, making sure it is consistently covered. Set aside for three to four hours, occasionally lifting up the bowl and tipping out the water that will have accumulated at the bottom- being careful not to let all the cabbage fall out by holding it in place with a spatula or other utensil.
3. Make the porridge: put the rice flour and water into a pan on a low heat and stir vigorously so it becomes a thin paste with no lumps. As it heats up you will need to keep stirring, until it reaches the consistency of wallpaper paste. Then add the sugar, stir to melt, and leave to cool.
4. Put the cooled porridge in a blender, and add the chili, garlic, ginger and fish sauce. Blend until smooth and set aside.
5. Peel the carrots and the white radish and julienne. If you want to save a lot of time you can splash out and buy the Kiwi Pro Slice Peeler, which will do the job in no time, and can also be used to make elaborate and useless little carved Thai vegetables. Sweet!
6. Slice the leeks and scallions into rounds. Put them in a large tupperware container along with the carrots and white radish. Now wait with another fermented product. A beer perhaps?
7. After three or four hours is up, rinse the cabbage to get rid of the salt, and drain well. Begin by adding a little of the spicy porridge to the carrot/leek/scallion/radish mixture, making sure it is well coated. Then gradually stir in the cabbage, adding a dollop of spicy porridge each time as you go.
8. After it is all incorporated, simply snap on the lid and put it somewhere relatively warm. I’ve heard the best kimchi is made at 5 degrees celsius for two weeks, but I’ve also had success at a blazing 28 degrees for four days. The water content of the vegetables should start to seep out, making the porridge watery. You need to keep the vegetables under the water line as much as possible, or mold might develop. When it’s ready the “soup” should be piquant and the vegetables should be soft, after which you can put it in the fridge. However, if you don’t want it to go too sour, or you want the vegetables to be crunchy, you can arrest its development early. Kimchi-making season is coming up, and Korean families typically gather together in late October or early November, before winter sets in. Why not try your hand at fermenting yourself into the new old-school healthy?
About the Author
- Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan, who contributes regularly to HESO on a variety of subjects.
Unless otherwise stated All images © HESO Magazine, 2011.
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