The ABCs of Kimchi—and a Pork Belly Stew to Put it In

April 22, 2016

To understand a cuisine, I think you have to start with basics. For instance, to someone who wanted to get a sense of Italian food, I would say first and foremost you have to understand pasta with tomato sauce. With Korean food, which I love and have been cooking a lot lately, it seems obvious to me that kimchi is the beginning. I had never made kimchi before and the whole idea of it seemed challenging—above all, the idea of the requisite fermentation process.

Usually when I’m trying to figure out how to do something, I research it by reading through cookbooks or asking an expert in the cuisine or, my favorite method, finding someone making it on YouTube. But for kimchi, I really needed someone to talk me through it. Fortunately, one of my oldest and best friends is a fermentation addict. Although he’s technically a painter and earns a living as an artist, he spends a suspicious amount of time for a nonprofessional playing around with all kinds of food preservation. Kimchi is one of his favorites; he not only makes it really well, but has also worked out many of the kinks.

I expected Giles Lyon to send me a recipe, but instead he texted me the basic framework, warning me to watch the saltiness and to rinse the vegetables after they come out of their brine, especially when using fish sauce and salted shrimp. He also suggested adding bonito flakes, which do indeed give a vague but pleasant smokiness to the end result.

I wrote out his steps and started to fill in the quantities, because I ultimately wanted a recipe that I would be able to refer back to. It’s the way I always work things out: First I make it just the way someone tells me to, and then I can understand what’s important and what can be changed or modified.

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On my first attempt, I got a pretty decent-tasting classic kimchi, but I also began to see how easy it is and how much one can play around with it and how ideal it is for when you have an abundance of produce that you want to preserve. I made another kimchi the next day with some excess red and green cabbage we had in the restaurant's walk-in, using soy sauce and miso instead of fish sauce and salted shrimp, in order to create a vegetarian version.

Photo by James Ransom

Kimchi is about textural variations; the traditional combination of napa cabbage and daikon is a perfect example. But there are so many combinations to be played with—bok choi and radish, for example, or substituting carrots or rutabagas or celery root for daikon. I used up some old-ish watermelon radish and the result was delicious and stunning.

Kimchi, aside from the time spent brining the vegetables, is actually incredibly easy and flexible. And all you'll need a big glass jar to pack your kimchi into, and a not-too-warm, not-too-cold area (somewhere between 55 to 65° F) to let the kimchi ferment in. (You can pack it into smaller mason jars after it has fermented, when it's time to refrigerate.)

Photo by James Ransom

Once you’ve made the kimchi, what do you do with it?

  • Kimchi Stew is so easy and so satisfying that it’s worth keeping kimchi around for that alone.
  • Grilled cheese with kimchi
  • Throw it into stir-fried rice (my go-to meal for leftovers).
  • I made an incredibly delicious broiled oyster with a dollop of crème fraîche and kimchi on top.
  • It’s great on a porchetta sandwich or with any other meat, really, as its sharp, spicy pungency cuts through anything rich and fatty.

Kimchi is something that belongs in your pantry as much as a can of San Marzano tomatoes, because with it you can either start to make authentic Korean food or use it as a building block for so many other meals.

How do cook with kimchi? Share your ideas in the comments.

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1 Comment

iriscooks April 22, 2016
Kimchi made with miso and soy sauce isn't kimchi. It's a non-Korean person's appropriation and reinterpretation (/bastardization) of Korean cuisine.