The most challenging thing about making kimchi is getting the Korean red pepper flakes, called gochu-garu, It is a mild chile that imparts a wonderful color and earthy flavor to kimchi. I buy it in large bags at Chinese and Korean markets and keep it in the pantry indefinitely. My friend Niloufer King, the Indian food expert and author of My Bombay Kitchen, loves to use Korean red pepper flakes in her recipes. Here’s what it looks like:
Tips for making and using kimchi:
- Use fish sauce as a short cut. Traditional Korean cooks put tiny, super salty shrimp into kimchi, but modern cooks often use the shortcut of using Southeast Asian fish sauce (nuoc mam/nam pla).
- Salt the cabbage till it’s tender firm. Many cooks cut the cabbage up and just put it all in the salted water. I did that for years but the method below from Huynjoo works better and makes sense. Adding extra salt in the thicker part of the napa cabbage allows the leaves to get salted at an even rate. The thinner parts of the leaf needs less salt.
- Store in a glass jar. It’s easier to wash out the odor of kimchi from glass than from plastic. If your glass jar needs an extra seal, use a double of quadruple layer of plastic wrap like I do above.
- Practice and come up with your own recipe. There are endless ways to season napa cabbage kimchi. This recipe offers just 2 options but you can certainly devise your own from the proportions below!
- Eat new/fresh kimchi as side dish but cook with old kimchi. Kimchi is a great banchan side dish to serve alongside the likes of Korean pickled jalapeno and garlic; try both with hot rice and grilled pork or beef. Mature, stinky kimchi is perfect for Korean dumplings (see Asian Dumplings, page 44 for a recipe) , jiggae soup, and Korean pancakes (pajon).
Korean Napa Cabbage Kimchi
Makes about 3 cups
3/4 cup fine sea salt
10 cups water
1 (2-pound) head napa cabbage, quartered lengthwise
Seasonings Option 1:
2 tablespoons chopped scallion, green part only
2 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic
1½ teaspoons minced ginger
3 1/2 tablespoons Korean red pepper powder (gochu-garu)
2 1/2 teaspoons light (regular) soy sauce
1 teaspoon fish sauce
1 teaspoon toasted hulled (white) sesame seeds, lightly crushed with a mortar and pestle
1 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 1/2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons grated Asian pear
2 tablespoons grated yellow onion
Seasonings Option 2:
1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 teaspoons minced ginger
1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 1/4 teaspoons distilled white vinegar
2/3 cup chopped scallion, white and green parts
2 tablespoons toasted, hulled (white) sesame seeds, lightly crushed with a mortar and pestle
2 tablespoons Korean red pepper powder (gochu-garu)
2 tablespoons grated Asian pear
1. In a large bowl, dissolve half of the salt in the water. Sprinkle the remaining salt in between the thicker parts of the leaves (closer to where they’re still attached at the core). Add the cabbage to the water and a metal lid (or other heavy object) on top to keep the cabbage submerged. Set aside for about 4 hours , until you can fold a piece of the cabbage from tip to core with a little resistance.
2. Drain the cabbage, rinse well several times, and drain again. Trim away the core and cut the cabbage crosswise into pieces about 2 inches wide. Now, grab handfuls of the cabbage and squeeze to remove excess moisture. Place in a colander and set in the sink to drain more.
3. In a large bowl, combine all the seasoning ingredients, stirring well; expect to smell the fragrant heat of the mixture! Squeeze the cabbage again to remove any lingering moisture. Then add to the seasoning ingredients. Mix well with your hands and/or a spatula.
4. Transfer the kimchi to a lidded glass container , pushing the kimchi down as best you can to minimize air pockets. Be sure to add all the seasonings. Cover and leave at room temperature for half a day to stimulate the fermentation process; you’ll notice liquid pooling in the jar. Then refrigerate overnight.
Taste the next day and if necessary, adjust the flavor with extra sugar, pear, or fish sauce. Resist adding more sea salt or the kimchi will turn bitter. The kimchi is ready to eat but if you let it sit for another day, it will taste better. Kimchi keeps well in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 weeks, but it will deepen in flavor over time.
Let me know how you altered the seasonings, etc. Don’t hold your kimchi making secrets to yourself!