There's a reason my logo is a picture of me with two heads of cabbage and "kimchi gloves." There's nothing more Korean than Kimchi. It's an essential element of any Korean meal (including breakfast). It's an ingredient in numerous soups, stews, fried rice, and pancakes. Living without Kimchi is unimaginable for most Koreans. You won't go hungry if you have kimchi. If you've ever flown to the US from Korea, you've probably noticed that distinctive kimchi smell at the baggage carousel. Lugging copious amounts of Kimchi on an international flight to make sure you have some when you arrive (while possibly breaking import laws)... That's how much kimchi means.
Just a few weeks ago, Kimchi was named an "Intangible Cultural Heritage" by UNESCO. The process of making kimchi and sharing it with family is an intrinsic part of the Korean identity (See this NY Times article). In a very real way, kimchi meant survival for Koreans. As long as a home had kimchi, there was nutritious food to be had. There are special fridges for storing and fermenting kimchi at optimal temperatures. There's even a whole side tradition of Korean pottery called onggi, or hangari, (the clay pots I'm sure you've seen pictures of) in which kimchi and other fermented foods are stored and aged (some times buried in the back yard).
Traditionally, each family would have its own recipe that would be passed on to the son's wife when she became part of the family, to make sure that she made her husband "proper" kimchi (So I've been told). A quick Google search will reveal hundreds of versions of kimchi that show this history of family recipes and regional styles. Each recipe is just ever so slightly different. People take pride in their kimchi - always fiddling with the recipe to get the best version, to impress friends and family. This year, it seems like kimchi making season (or "kimjang") is trending. Maybe I'm just more tuned into it, but it's been great to see everyone posting about kimchi and making kimchi. It's also been really interesting to watch everyone's different processes and styles.
When I met my wife's family in America, and her family in Korea, kimchi was my in. All of the ahjummas would compliment my wife on how well I ate kimchi. It was an easy way to show my respect for their culture and food, while earning a little street cred. It was important that we had kimchi in our home as newlyweds - as long as we had kimchi, we wouldn't starve. There was never a time when we visited Virginia from New York that my 장모님 (mother-in-law) didn't send us home with a back seat full of kimchi. The perfect addition to any 5 hour drive.
Kimchi was the first Korean food that I learned how to make - watching and "helping" my wife's aunt and mother make large batches in the summers.
It's a food that ages and changes in the ways that wine does. Its flavor on day one is different than day five, and different from a month on. I've made batches that were AMAZING the first week. Then tasted weird. And then eventually aged into perfection. Kimchi has a life cycle and no two batches are ever alike - you can control for a lot, but factors inherent to the natural fermenting process will always cause slight variations in the flavor. Perfectly aged kimchi will have bubbles that dance on your tongue like champagne. When we lived in New York, I heard legends of a K-Town restaurant where you could get 3 year old kimchi if you knew who to ask, and were willing to pay extraordinary prices.
Most Koreans that I know don't make their own Kimchi. My wife has no idea how to make it and it'll probably be me that teaches our sons about the process. Generally, the Koreans I know either get it from their parents or buy pre-made at the store. Store bought isn't bad. There are brands that I love (Tobagi from Hmart) and others I'm wary of (check the country of origin).
If you buy the tiny jars at Whole Foods, you're paying too much. Mother in Law's Kimchi is great - but it's expensive. Some restaurants may sell kimchi, but often, restaurant kimchi is made using a quick fermentation that mimics the traditional aging process (this isn't always true, but it does happen - and for good reason.) Imagine all of the kimchi you'd have to make to give a little bit to everyone that comes into your restaurant. You're better off learning how to make your own.
There's a recipe here, but this post is mostly about love for kimchi. It's about paying some respect to the long history and tradition of making kimchi. And it's about showing respect for a cultural symbol.
I'm prefacing with all this because I'm not Korean and it'd be crazy arrogant of me to come in and claim that I've got a bomb kimchi recipe that I'd developed. So, I need to tread a bit carefully here.
First of all, Kimchi is an area so iconic, so Korean, and filled with so much tradition, that I prefer not to mess with it. Secondly, there are so many recipes out there, that it'd be hard to claim THIS as THE recipe to follow. There is another kimchi recipe on my site that is good - but it's my "lazy" version (it only takes 2 hours or so). That recipe is a mish mash of other recipes that I've used, and uses a cut kimchi brining technique that helps the process go faster. Finally, I'm sure a white guy is not anyone's go-to for kimchi technique. Even I raise an eyebrow when I see my fellow baekins talking about kimchi.
This recipe is more traditional. It's not mine - it comes from my wife's family and it's what all of the our extended families use when they make kimchi for kimjang or on their own. I've made kimchi a bunch - at least once every three months for the past few years - and while this doesn't make me an expert, I can say that this recipe is solid. My wife's family's kimchi is the best (biased opinion) and this is that recipe. (Strictly speaking, I changed the brining process from what is directly prescribed in the official family recipe.)
Making kimchi isn't complicated. It is time consuming and messy - but manageable, even in small New York City apartments. This recipe is for one head of napa cabbage. Add 1.25 times the ingredients for each additional head. When making large amounts of kimchi, I find that a 1:1 ratio doesn't quite cut it. I settled on the 1.25 as a rough guide.
I buy 4 heads at a time and that usually gets my wife and I through 3 months or so, and I usually give away some to friends. 4 heads will fill 3, 2 gallon glass jars.
If you are buying the napa cabbage at a non-Korean grocery, the heads are smaller. Use the same recipe, but know that you're not going to get a whole lot of kimchi.
INGREDIENTS (per one 4 lb head of cabbage)
1 Napa cabbage
1 Korean radish (you'll need about 1 lb per head of cabbage)
2 cups of coarse salt
1 gallon of water
1/2 lb or Apple or Asian pears
1/2 lb of Onion
1/4 cup of Minced garlic
15 grams of Ginger (about half of a thumb)
4 Green onions
5 Korean chilis
1 cup of Chili flakes
2 tablespoons of sesame seeds
1/4 cup anchovy sauce / fish sauce
1 Carrot (optional)
Sweet Rice Paste
3 Tablespoons of sweet rice powder
1 cup of Water
1) BRINE THE CABBAGE OVERNIGHT - Prep the salt water brine by adding about 1.75 cps of salt for every gallon of cold water (you'll probably need more than a gallon - Here's a little guide on the brining process). Agitate the water slightly to dissolve the salt.
Cut an X into the bottom of the cabbage about 1/4 of the length of the entire cabbage. Pull the cabbage apart into quarters and place in a large bow or tub. Add salt to cabbage - pull apart the leaves and make sure a bit of salt gets in every nook and cranny. Add salt water and soak for at least 8 hours, turning or rotating the cabbage heads at least once. When you taste the water, it should taste almost like the ocean. If it does not, add more salt and taste the water again after the salt dissolves.
it's also not a terrible idea to put a cutting board or something on top to keep the cabbages submerged.
2) WHEN the cabbage is done, rinse it well under cold water and let it drain for at least half an hour. Move the heads every so often to make sure all of the water is draining out. You'll know that the cabbage is ready when the leaves are slightly wilty and soft.
3) PREP THE RICE PASTE - Combine the sweet rice power and 1 cup of water into a small pot and bring to a boil while stirring to make sure that there are no lumps and the mixture is smooth. It should be thick, but not like dough. Pay attention to this step because things can go south quickly. DO NOT LEAVE IT UNATTENDED! Err on the side of caution and keep the heat relatively low. When it's thickened, remove from heat and let cool.
Add 1.5x of water and sweet rice powder for each additional head of cabbage.
Let cool COMPLETELY before adding to kimchi paste (stirring often helps, or give it an ice bath). If you add the paste hot or even warm, the kimchi loses some of its crunchy texture and becomes more mushy.
4) PREP THE SPICY PASTE
a) Julienne the radish, green onion, and carrot.
b) Add peeled apple/pears to food processor with garlic, ginger, onion, and peppers.
c) Combine radish, green onions, carrots, and ingredients from the food processor, in a large bowl.
d) Add sesame seeds, fish sauce, chili flakes (gochugaru) and sweet rice paste.
e) Combine thoroughly with your hands or a wooden spoon (this is where the pink kimchi gloves come in handy)
5) COAT LEAVES - Add cabbages to the kimchi paste a few at a time. Separate the leaves and coat each side of the each leaf with kimchi paste. Place in air tight storage container.
You can cram more in the jars than you think you can. They'll naturally compress.
6) STORE - Place a piece of cling film over the top of the kimchi to prevent air contamination, seal tightly, and let sit at room temperature for two days before moving to a refrigerator. Storing in a colder fridge slows the fermentation process. Leaving out at room temperature will increase fermentation, but too long and the kimchi will spoil. A temp of about 40 degrees is ideal for aging (hence special kimchi fridges.)