I made a work trip to Melbourne last month, and was lucky enough to share a home-cooked meal with Gill and Lucy – a beautiful and grounding way to begin a week of restaurant dinners. As a little present, I took them each a jar of kimchi. Lucy gobbled hers up straight away, and asked for the recipe, which you’ll find at the end of this post.
I first decided to make kimchi after buying David Chang’s Momofuku, a cheffy cookbook that for once lived up to the hype. I’m not often prone to food and food celebrity crazes, but the #momofukurage campaign started by would-be diners at Chang’s first Sydney appearance suckered me in and I’m glad I succumbed.
I’d been interested in Korean food for a while, having picked up Chang Sun-young’s A Korean Mother’s Cooking Notes at the “fill a bag for $10” stage of the Lifeline Bookfair one year. It’s a great introductory book written by a woman whose sons have emigrated to America. It gently leads you through some fundamentals of both Korean home cooking … and what it might be like to have a Korean Mother-in-Law. From the epilogue, “Tales of my mother in law”:
I think she has written this cookbook for me instead of chiding me for my failures. It is her gentle way of teaching the family tradition and cooking to her sons and daughters in law who live far apart from her. I must confess that Mother’s particularities in cooking caused me quite a bit of stress. I thought she was obsessed with food and complained that her attitude was breaking the balance among food, clothing and shelter for our family. I vowed that I would not be like her, but unbeknownst to myself, I must have been brainwashed because I find myself thinking of cooking ever more often. My suspicion is confirmed by my friends who comment on my cooking, saying “like mother-in-law, like daughter-in-law”.
As you’d expect, Chang Sun-young has some pretty firm ideas about kimchi, including:
- a woman’s cookery and hostessing skills can safely be judged by tasting her kimchi
- it is a sign of a lack of care to buy kimchi
- leave your kimchi on the bench for a day or two to start ripening – refrigerating it before it has had a chance to start fermenting will make it unpalatable and “frost-bitten”
Her recipe involves brining the chopped cabbages before salting and combining with the other ingredients, which include ginger, garlic, green onions, red pepper powder and finely chopped fresh or frozen shrimp. She notes that a more traditional method involves using cabbages that are halved or quartered and rubbing the other ingredients between the leaves, and that if you’re putting up winter kimchi in pottery urns buried in the backyard, that’s the way you should do it.
If you are contemplating such a backyard full of kimchi , Michael J Pettid’s scholarly but readable Korean Cuisine: An Illustrated History has an account of the traditional autumn p’umasi where families would gather to process the 100 – 150 heads of cabbage that were the minimum needed to see each through a long winter of little or no fresh vegetables in pre-modern Korea. If you’re interested in fermentation in general, Sandor Katz’s site is a brilliant place to start, and his book Wild Fermentation has a vegetarian kimchi recipe.
Like most homely and centuries-old foodstuffs, you can take considerably more leeway than a Korean Mother-in-law might allow when you make your own; Chang for instance has adapted his mother’s recipe by starting the fermentation in the fridge and using more sugar. He describes the level of fermentation that takes him to his kimchi happy place:
There’s a point, after about two weeks, where the bacteria that are fermenting the kimchi start producing CO2 and the kimchi takes on a prickly mouthfeel, like the feeling of letting the bubbles in a soft drink pop on your tongue.
Gill was a little alarmed that her jar of kimchi had started bubbling so she should be in a good position to describe that for us!
As a rule I make a mixed kimchi using a variety of vegetables. There is ALWAYS some in the house, or Owen gives me wounded looks when he can’t have his favourite cheddar, kimchi and kewpie mayonnaise sandwiches. When I was making some to take to Melbourne, I found a note on the fridge that said “All kimchi is to remain in Canberra. No kimchi is to be taken to Melbourne”. It is quite addictive, and a little each day does seem to do good things to your insides. Once you’ve made it, you can find lots of delicious things to do with it at Ellie’s site.
crazybrave’s kimchi, adapted from David Chang’s recipe
Tips on ingredients:
It’s really important to use a Korean red pepper/chilli powder, which can be much harder to obtain than Chinese versions. Canberrans can go to the Korean grocery where Impact Comics used to be downstairs in Garema Place, which is the only store where I’ve found it here – even Asiana in the Canberra Centre, otherwise excellent for Korean ingredients, only seems to have the Chinese version.
Most of the other ingredients I use are from the Food Co-op and I’m convinced that minimally refined salt and sugar make a difference. I use a very mineral-rich but carbon-unfriendly damp grey Celtic sea salt and rapadura sugar.
I haven’t been able to find the jarred salted shrimp that Chang recommends, so often throw in a dash of stinky Vietnamese fish sauce, mam nem. It and the seaweed I add are enough to get the level of brininess to my taste. And I use a Korean light soy sauce because the Taiwanese sauces I otherwise use seem a bit heavy in kimchi.
- 1 head of wombok, or any other nice cabbage you fancy, chopped in one inch pieces
- 2 long daikon, sliced thinly into medallions with a mandolin
Toss vegetables with 2 tablespoons salt and 2 tablespoons sugar and leave in a covered container in a cool place overnight. You may wish to move all your sheets and towels to convert your linen press into a fermenting cupboard, but then again you may not.
In the biggest bowl you own, or a clean bucket, combine:
- 20 minced cloves of garlic (less at this time of year when garlic is out of season)
- a finger length piece of ginger, minced
- 1/2 cup Korean chilli powder (kochukaru)
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup fish sauce (I use Megachef)
- 1/4 cup Korean light soy sauce (usukuchi)
- a splash of mam nem
Add water until there is movement in the mix, but stop before it gets too thin. Then add:
- 1/2 cup of green onions cut in 2 cm pieces
- 2 or 3 carrots, peeled and cut into medallions with a mandoline (I peel mine with a wavy Thai peeler for kicks)
- a handful of hijiki or another thinly sliced sea vegetable such as arame
Drain cabbage and daikon, and add to the mix. Pack into clean jars. Leave in the linen closet overnight, and then refrigerate.
Eat with everything.