How to make Kimchi
Kimchi is Korea’s undisputed national dish, with a staggering two million tonnes of it consumed every year. With a flavour that’s simultaneously described as sour, pungent, salty, spicy, even umami, it’s not surprising for Kimchi to appear in any meal in its home country and today intrigues the taste buds of diners all around the world. But what is kimchi and what exactly is the appeal?
If you’ve seen kimchi in a jar, it might be hard to pinpoint the individual ingredients as it’s packed tight with vegetables immersed in a vibrant red briney paste. But the soul of the dish is the humble cabbage.
Kimchi originated in Korea during the country’s Three Kingdom’s period between the first century AD and the sixth century AD. Families had long used preservation methods to make fresh vegetables last during the long, harsh Korean winters and when cabbages first arrived in the country in around 2030 BC, they were, of course, duly fermented. This preserved cabbage dish took on various guises until the arrival of chilli peppers and various spices from the Americas in the 16th century, which paved the way for the hot and tangy recipe we know today.
Given this journey, it’s unsurprising that there are hundreds of kimchi recipes that have evolved as new spices came to prominence, ingredients grew in popularity, different countries adapted it and households passed their own recipes down the generations. Sweeteners and sugar are added by some, vegetables like bamboo shoots, cucumbers, carrots and water chestnuts often feature and the dish is easily adapted to different dietary requirements.
What’s in it?
The central elements in kimchi are fresh Chinese cabbage, Korean chillies, ginger, garlic and salt, with a fish sauce or equivalent like soy sauce, miso or even water. This combination gives kimchi its kaleidoscope of flavours, with the fermentation process adding the unmistakable sourness.
How do I eat kimchi?
This versatile dish can be used as an ingredient, a condiment, side dish, dip, starter or sauce and eaten on its own or added to any meal. It’s the heart and soul of Korean cooking, enjoyed cold from the jar, layered up in sandwiches or thrown into the pan to pep up fried rice, stews, stir-fries, noodles, pizzas, pasta sauce and soups. Once the jar is empty, keep the brine to give a kick to mayonnaise or sour cream, or add to the liquid of a pan of steamed rice for an instant depth of flavour.
Are there health benefits?
Besides being packed with vegetables, there are many health benefits attributed to kimchi. The main ones are due to the probiotics, or healthy bacteria, grown during the natural fermentation process. These are known to help boost immunity, energise the body and aid digestion as well as help lower cholesterol and regulate blood sugar. Kimchi is also nutrient dense, low in calories, is gluten free and can be made vegan too.
Is homemade better than shop-bought?
Given the popularity of kimchi today, there are many excellent options available from supermarkets and speciality stores, but if you want to benefit from the probiotics, you need to purchase it ready-made from the chilled section.
The benefits of homemade are that you can add the ingredients you like, then ferment your kimchi until it tastes just right and it’s also very simple and inexpensive to make. Once the vegetables are prepared, fermentation takes care of the rest.
How does it differ from country to country?
Kimchi flavours can vary between cultures and countries, but in fact, you may find that no two batches are the same from your own kitchen! The vegetables and spices influence the final flavour, but so too can the age and origin of each ingredient, the duration of fermentation and age of the batch, as kimchi will continue to ferment until it’s eaten up.
As kimchi has become more commonplace outside of Korea, the recipes have been adapted to local palates, different climates and the freshness or seasonality of ingredients.But before we see how other countries have made their mark on this simple dish, Korea has many of its own ideas too!
Baechu kimchi – offers a different texture by using a whole uncut salted cabbage
Kkakdugi kimchi – uses large cubes of radish to replace the cabbage for a crunchier texture
Nabak kimchi – a “water kimchi” with more stock, plus sliced apple and pear for a sweeter tang
Yeolmu kimchi – a fresh dish of summer radishes for when cabbages are not ready for harvest
Oi sobagi – a refreshing stuffed cucumber kimchi popular in summertime
Baek kimchi – white in colour and mild in flavour, replacing the hot pepper with chestnuts and fruit
Bossam kimchi – a mix of seafood, fruit, chestnuts and pine nuts fermented in whole cabbage leaves
Global dishes similar to kimchi
The most common comparison made to Korean kimchi is sauerkraut; a fermented cabbage dish from Germany. It’s made using the same process, but is distinctly sour, without the spice. In India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, achaar is made in a similar way to kimchi and features a medley of vegetables and fruits with a blend of Indian spices. Atsara from the Philippines creates the sweet and sour flavour with papaya and peppercorns and brovada from northern Italy is a fermented turnip dish in a grape pomace. The Spanish curtido is a lightly fermented relish with lime juice, while Nicaraguan encurtido is a colourful dish with jalapeno and crunchy veg. In north-eastern China, they enjoy suan cai, little parcels of pickled cabbage, while Japan’s Tsukemono is an assortment of bite-sized, fragrant packages of lightly-pickled vegetables.
How is Kimchi made?
Although kimchi can be enjoyed immediately, fermentation gives the dish its distinctive flavour and unique nutritional profile. In fact, many decisions made throughout production are reflected in the final taste.
First, the cabbage is soaked in water and salt. This kills off bad bacteria, but preserves the kind required for fermentation. One key factor in establishing the flavour is the choice of vegetables and spice as well as the amount of salt and whether sugar is used. The amount of time you leave your kimchi to ferment also influences the flavour, so you should sample it every day, remembering that the taste will continue to mature in the fridge. The balance of ingredients will determine how mild or fiery the flavour is, the amount of garlic can affect the sourness and too much ginger can make it sticky.
Once ready, keep your kimchi in the fridge and leave a further week to fully develop the flavour if you can possibly wait. It will keep for a few months in the fridge as long as you press the vegetables back down below the brine to avoid it going mouldy. If you prefer your kimchi cool rather than cold, it will keep at room temperature for a week.
How to make kimchi:
- Large bowl for salting
- Side plate that fits snugly inside the large bowl
- Cutting board and knife
- Heavy tin
- Clean jar with a secure lid
- Bowl or plate
- One large Napa or Chinese leaf cabbage
- One teaspoon of peeled, fresh ginger
- Four-to-six grated garlic cloves
- Four tablespoons of sea salt or iodine-free salt (iodine can affect fermentation)
- One teaspoon of granulated sugar (optional)
- Spring, distilled or filtered still water (chlorinated water can affect fermentation)
- Four medium spring onions cut into one-inch pieces
- Two white radishes cut into matchsticks
- Two tablespoons of fish sauce or salted shrimp paste (substitute with miso paste, soy sauce, vegan fish sauce or three tablespoons of water)
- Gochugaru (red pepper powder) or gochujang (fermented chilli paste), to taste
- Chop the cabbage into two-inch-wide pieces
- Place the cabbage in a large bowl and sprinkle over with the salt. Massage the salt into the cabbage until it starts to soften
- Pour over enough water to cover the cabbage
- Put a plate on top of the cabbage, weigh down with a heavy can and leave for one-to-two hours
- Thoroughly rinse and drain the cabbage and leave to rest in the colander
- Put the garlic, ginger, sugar and fish sauce into the bowl and stir to make a smooth paste
- Stir in the gochugaru, adding one tablespoon for a mild flavour and up to five for extra spicy
- Squeeze any remaining water from the cabbage and add it into the paste
- Add the radishes and spring onions
- Use your hands to work the paste into the vegetables until completely coated
- Pack the kimchi into the glass jar and press down until the brine covers the vegetables
- Leave an inch of space at the top and seal the jar
- Put a plate underneath the jar to catch any overflow and leave in a cool room to ferment for between one to five days
- Open the jar daily to release the gas, press the vegetables back down and to check the flavour
- Once the kimchi’s to your taste, transfer to the fridge and leave for another week before eating