Today marked my first kimchi-making class. I had a wonderful time with a room packed full of 13 students. IndyHall was kind enough to host us and my wonderful husband was kind enough to sous-ferment (or whatever you call it), making it possible for me to go crazy with my ramblings on all things fermentation.
This class got me thinking: just about every batch of kimchi I’ve made has been different. The constants for me are always brine, ginger, alliums and heat.
Brine: I always brine rather than sweat the vegetables (sweating is commonly done with sauerkraut) because I like to have bigger pieces of cabbage, and I prefer the flavor of brined kimchi to directly salted kimchi. If you’re going to sweat the napa cabbage, you need small pieces, and that’s just a non-starter for me. Adding salt directly also gives you less room to adapt the salt level. You need a decent amount to get enough liquid off that cabbage! If I had the space or, you know, an extra bathroom that was never touched by naked human flesh, I would definitely fill a bathtub with whole leaves, whole heads of cabbage or giant chunks. Since I don’t have the space, I keep my chunks as large as is manageable for my countertop fermentation activities (about 2×2 inches).
Ginger: I LOVE ginger in all its forms. One of my favorite non-kimchi ferments is ginger beer. I drink it fresh and age it to bone dry booze. I suck on fresh ginger at the first hint of belly upset and always have some candied ginger in my bag in case of emergencies. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that when I made kimchi the first time and the recipe called for 1/2 inch of ginger, I added 3 inches instead. Sometimes I add 6 inches, but I think that’s my limit.
Alliums: Garlic and scallions are musts in just about every kimchi recipe I’ve ever seen. I take it overboard and throw in whatever else I’ve got from the allium family. I often brine leeks with my cabbage and radish. I usually throw an onion into the paste mixture and shallots have seen their way in a few times as well.
Heat: Okay, this is negotiable. According to Sandor Ellix Katz in his AMAZING, must-buy book The Art of Fermentation in some northern regions of Korea, red pepper is not used at all. I’ve read in several places that hot, red peppers didn’t reach Korea until the 1600s, but kimchi has a 2,000 year tradition, so if you’re going to be REALLY traditional, kimchi and hot pepper aren’t strictly linked. I do like to throw at least a pinch (and sometimes a cup) of gochugaru (korean red pepper powder) or red pepper flakes into my kimchis.
Everything else has been in flux. Yes, I usually use napa cabbage and daikon, but, don’t gasp, I’ve totally gone American style with regular old cabbage and cherry belle radishes. I’ve included carrots, peppers, thin slices of cauliflower, kelp pieces and many more things from the vegetable drawer or garden that needed to get used. I’ve made gruels of white rice flour, brown rice flour, wheat flour, no flour. I’ve used ripe fruit in my paste blend. I’ve gone dead simple and left out all but the barest essentials. To me, this is the beauty of kimchi; flexible rules that result in pure deliciousness every time and a tradition of using what’s good, seasonal and available in order to enrich your diet and the flavor of your dinner.
Do you make kimchi at home? How do you make it your own?