Kimchee, in All It’s Stinky Glory
A brief, but poignant description of my love affair with the finest pickle on the face of the earth.
Crunchy, salty, garlic-bomby. Kim chee is definitely an experience, sort of like sauerkraut… you either hate it or love it. My first experience with it, a few years ago in the korea food mecca of Tacoma, WA, was definitely an experience. I hadn’t been exposed to too much asian cuisine, as a southern Idaho native, we don’t have too much outside of the usual bad-american-chinese-hybrid places. My girlfriend, half chinese, was well versed however in all manners of glorious food that I hadn’t tried, and being the total foodie that I was (and am) was not about to be outdone. So, when the opportunity arose to go out for Korean food the first time, I jumped at the opportunity. Of course, the first thing that you realize when you get into these types of situations is that you have absolutely no idea what to order… thank god for my girlfriend and her family, who were all initiates of the ordering system. They ordered, and I hastily agreed that I would be down for anything. Bring it on. As Anthony Bourdain is fond of saying… your body is not a temple, but more of an amusement park ride.
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First up was the ubiquitous and delightful array of banchan. A veritable cacophony of tiny little dishes of strange, but delightfully concocted treasures. Bean-sprouts, spinach sautéed in sesame oil , hot-dogs in mayonnaise, and a number of kim chee pickles. I dug in, we all did. Everything was absolutely glorious. Garlicky, fishy, salty, crunchy… really the entire gamut of adjectives. The crown of course went to the moment I slipped the sludgy, neon-red wilted cabbage bite into my mouth… and it instantly exploded. It’s hot, really hot (which is great) very salty and garlicky, and funky. The funk comes from the only damn microorganism that can survive such a potent array of killers like garlic, ginger, salt and korean chili powder. Lactobacillus kimchii. That’s right… there is a species named after the food. Anyway, from it’s name, you can probably gather that it produces lactic acid, which is what gives kim chee its delightfully soda-ish mouthfeel. These little guys are also ANOTHER reason that kim chee doesn’t spoil. They make so much lactic acid that the environment becomes totally toxic for other critters.
It became immediately clear that I was one of those folks who love it. And boy do I… I could eat mounds of the stuff. The next question of course was “Can I make this”? Now, a preface: I’m not a fan of shortcuts in cooking, especially in cuisines that we as westerners aren’t immediately familiar with. Sure, it’s ok to make some faux-asian soba noodle salad for a summer get-together, and it can be good. But don’t call it authentic… and don’t pretend to be a master of traditional japanese cooking. I feel like it’s best to take the time to get it right first, and once you have it down, then you can feel free to change things willy-nilly. That being said… I wasn’t sure if I could get the right ingredients, or find the right recipe. It was a challenge… and after about two years of putting it off, delays and general laziness it happened. The right recipe, the right ingredients, and the willpower to do it prevailed. The results are wonderful.
The recipe comes from David Chang’s Momofuku. I fell in love with the cookbook the moment I sat down with it, and I knew that the kimchee recipe had to be gold. Ingredient time…
(1) Napa Cabbage – Easy to find almost everywhere
Salt – duh.
Sugar – again… ok.
20 garlic cloves (minced) – yes… that seems ridiculous, but yes.
20 slices peeled ginger (minced) – again, seems excessive, but I’m down.
kochukaru (korean chili powder) (0.5 cups) – umm… no freaking clue.
Fish Sauce (0.25 cups) – I have some… not totally ordinary though.
Usukuchi (light soy sauce) (0.25 cups) – findable, but again, not ordinary.
Jarred Salted Shrimp (1tsp or 2) – Shocker, I don’t have these on hand either.
scallions (minced 0.5 cups) – you bet.
Julienned carrots (0.5 cups) – yes! I get to practice my knife skills.
Pretty simple. Sugar and salt the chopped cabbage overnight, throw everything else together, add the cabbage, and then add water until you get something the consistency of a salad dressing. Stuff into jars, and let sit 1-2 weeks.
We tasted it after 1 weeks, and then after two. I liked it better after 2, as does Chang. It’s got that cool, funky lacobacillus feel to it. If you’re a fan of Kimchee, this is the recipe. Do it. If you haven’t had it… Don’t make an entire batch, for god’s sake, get out to a Korean restaurant! Inexpensive, fun, and killer food is awaiting you!
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Cover of Momofuku