Kimchi excuses

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This isn’t a real blog post.  I’ve been working on one, but have somehow gotten stuck.  I’m hoping to get unstuck, but my excuse is that I’ve been making a lot of kimchi and jangajji (deeply salty Korean pickles).  I have too much in my refrigerator, not all of it is good, and I need to deal with it.

From left to right:

Back row: Green chile peppers in brine, waiting to be pickled in soy sauce; cucumber kimchi; pickled garlic; kkakdugi or radish; and green cabbage kimchi.

Front row: Pickled perilla leaves; oiji or pickled cucumbers; and dongchimi, or water kimchi, which was absolutely abysmal.

(There’s a circular depression on the kkaenip or perilla leaves because I weighed it down with an egg cup.)

It’s been a frustrating couple of months, pickle-wise.  There are some kimchis that I’ve made that I’ve felt really good about, but they’re the easy ones, cucumber and radish, spicy and tart at the same time.  I like my kkaenip-jangajji or pickled perilla leaves also.  I’ve been experimenting with fish sauce and anchovy stock, in addition to soy sauce, sugar, and vinegar, and I really like where I’m going.

But baechu-kimchi, the classic Napa cabbage that everyone knows and loves, has vexed me.  I’ve had friends eat and enjoy batches I’ve made, but it hasn’t once tasted quite right to me, or at least not through the whole process.  I made a batch recently that my sister really liked.  It was more lightly salted and fresher than most, the way my mom makes it, which I’ve recently found is a Seoul tendency.  But it ripened into something really blah.  I’ve made others where it tasted boring at first and then over time, became something sort of darkly interesting.

I’m starting to accept that making kimchi is unlike any other kind of cooking I’ve ever done before.  It’s not cooking in a literal sense, of course, but it’s also requires a certain kind of faith that’s unnecessary when you’re frying pork chops.  Making kimchi is a little bit like baking, something I don’t really enjoy, because once you put it in the oven, there’s nothing you can do to help it.  Except kimchi is even worse — that cake won’t come out of the oven for a long, long time.  And the cake will keep changing on you over months and you just have to accept it.  I ate kimchi almost everyday growing up, but I never followed a batch from the beginning, I never decided myself when the batch was done.  (The decision to pull the plug on a batch of kimchi is a difficult one, and only you can decide for yourself when it’s time.)

It’s only recently that people have started writing down recipes for kimchi, of course, the kind of recipes that try to quantify how much salt, how much fish sauce, how many spoonfuls of pickled shrimp.  The most important ingredient is salt, and as a chef told me recently, salt is the only seasoning that brings out the natural flavors of the underlying ingredient more sharply.  So even if your kimchi seems to be smothered in garlic, ginger, and crushed red pepper, what makes it good is the quality of the underlying vegetable and your skill in drawing out that flavor through salt.  You have to know your cabbage well.  You have to know that winter cabbage is sweeter than summer cabbage, that cabbages from certain mountains are crisper than cabbages from elsewhere, and then, almost intuitively, adjust your salt accordingly.

Ultimately, I don’t think you can learn to make kimchi from a recipe, no matter what Bobby Flay tells you.  (He uses vinegar and vegetable oil!  Read Maangchi‘s full take-down here.)  You can certainly follow a recipe and end up with good kimchi.  I’m going to include kimchi recipes in the cookbook, and you better believe I will stand behind them.  But to learn and to know how to make kimchi takes time and practice.  It takes a certain willingness to let go and be intuitive, to be humble and flexible.  Being an A student who always follows the directions exactly isn’t going to make it happen, a lesson I have learned from experience.

The last thing I want to do is discourage anyone from making kimchi.  It really isn’t hard, fermentation anyway.  In fact, I think what I am trying to say is the more you make kimchi, the more rewarding it will be.

To read about a Korean-American whose guilt-laden struggles led to something awesome, read this (via ZenKimchi).  It’s a Wall Street Journal article about Roy Choi, the chef of the Kogi Korean taco truck in LA.  My favorite part:

“Korean parents hate to even think about a boy becoming a chef or working in a kitchen,” says his father, Soo Myung Choi, 59. “We wanted him to become a medical doctor, lawyer or government official.” Finally reckoning it would never happen, the elder Mr. Choi asked his son what the Harvard of culinary arts was, and suggested he attend.

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5 Responses to “Kimchi excuses”

  1. Tamar Says:

    My grandmother was the queen of dill pickles when she was alive. When we lived in Montana, she made them all the time, after we moved to Illinois when I was 9, she stopped making them. I asked her why. She said the water changes the taste of the pickles and the water in the house where we lived wasn’t good for pickles so she just stopped making them.

  2. Grace Says:

    I love that story! Sad you didn’t have pickles any more, but I love that your grandmother knew her water and her pickles so well.

  3. claire Says:

    Thanks for this post! Since I came home from Korea, I tried and tried to like the stuff I could buy at the store, but it all tasted off. Just nothing like the kimchi I had eaten in Korea. Kimchi at restaurants was way better but only accessible if I paid the big bucks for a full meal.
    Finally I tried my hand at making my own sauerkraut, using whey from straining yogurt to start the fermentation. I tried a batch with garlic, ginger, and gochu powder and plain old green cabbage. It was amazing! So much closer to what I remember. I think it must be the live culture that makes it so delicious. I’m pretty sure the commercial ones are pasteurized. I’ll have to try my hand at actual kimchi next time around. I wonder though, my favorite kimchis in Korea were the ones that were almost sweet, with a beautiful sesame flavor. Do they just add toasted sesame oil to those ones? What’s the secret?

  4. Grace Says:

    I’ve heard sauerkraut is the closest equivalent to kimchi, as they both involve lactic fermentation, so it makes sense that your sauerkraut with gochukaru tasted right to you! I’ve never made sauerkraut, but kimchi doesn’t require any whey or culture; the fermentation occurs naturally from healthy bacteria in the cabbage reacting to the salt. But you’re probably right, the manufacturers must pasteurize some.

    I don’t know about the sesame flavor, as I’ve never seen a kimchi recipe that had sesame oil or sesame seeds in it, though almost every dish that uses kimchi (kimchi stew, kimchi fried rice, etc.) will often use a spoonful or two of sesame oil to round out the flavor. Was it cabbage? The big radish cubes are often sweet, especially at places that serve those big bone-based soups. There is usually some sugar in kimchi, not necessarily enough to make it sweet, but I’ve definitely had cabbages that just had a natural sweetness to them. You might want to try posting your question at the forums on maangchi.com.

  5. hazel Says:

    I followed the recipe of Chef Seri of Seri’s Kitchen with UKISS. I had to omit several ingredients esp pickled shrimps (because I am allergy to seafood) and it still tasted great. I used the Australian sea salt at least half bottle for 3 heads of cabbages.

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