Before we begin, I’ll admit I am not Korean, despite being someone who has bucketloads of love for bubbling, lip-burning pots of soondubu jjigae and samgye-tang (ginseng chicken soup), crispy pajeons bursting with scallions and shrimp, or a spread of banchan. Most of all, I love funky, spicy, addictive kimchi, and I love that you can find it anywhere Korean food is served, be it a hole-in-the-wall lunch spot in Koreatown or the out-of-town Korean BBQ spot run by three generations of Koreans, or at just a casual dinner at a Korean friend’s place.
Last year, I returned home to Malaysia after nearly 8 years in the UK and the US, and with the country’s burgeoning craze for Korean culture, I expected good kimchi to be an easy find. Reality put a damper on my kimchi dreams. Except for the truly authentic Korean restaurants that are few and far between, many Malaysian-ized Korean restaurants serve their own brand of quick, homemade kimchi that has been adulterated to appeal to the Malaysian palate, tasting (to me at least) more like diluted Malaysian acar than the funky Korean kimchi I craved. So as any serial kimchi fan would, I resorted to making my own.
While the term kimchi encompasses a wide range of salted and fermented vegetables, the most common, quintessential type is made from napa cabbage. The first time I made it, I scoured through countless Korean food websites and consulted my Korean friends for the most authentic baechu kimchi recipe available. It called for Korean pantry staples like saeu-jeot (fermented shrimp), gochugaru (korean chili flakes) and minari (water dropwort). Sourcing these unfamiliar ingredients was a chore in itself, but I eventually found them in a specialty Korean mini-mart a good 40-minute-drive out from where I live.
And though the resulting kimchi was glorious and satisfying, like only the best kimchi can be, getting the ingredients was a challenge, and I wasn’t sure I’d be as gung-ho every time I need a kimchi and fast (relatively). After a few more tiresome trips to the Korean mini-mart, I finally gave in to using more commonplace ingredients and came up with a more approachable kimchi recipe. I probably also broke a few unspoken kimchi rules along the way.
In it, instead of gochugaru, an ingredient my Korean friends tout as essential for kimchi, I used regular chili flakes that I had in my pantry. And in place of the pungent saeu-jeot, I used the fish sauce that I had on hand. (You could also do without it for a vegan kimchi.) As for the sweet rice flour that forms the base of any good kimchi paste, I used regular rice flour in its place. The tangy, herbal minari was the trickiest to substitute. There’s nothing else quite like it, but to somewhat make up for it, I added onions and carrots into the mix, in hopes that it would add more complexity and spunk to the kimchi than your typical store-bought variety.
I concede that this is far from a truly authentic kimchi, it might even be heretical to compare it to true kimchi. But as far as kimchi recipes go, this rule-breaking kimchi was all that I hoped it would be, and more. It was deep, complex, and funky, and satiated my kimchi craving like few others have. Plus, it only takes 45 minutes of active cooking time to whip up (one leg of my journey to the Korean store), and is deeply cathartic to make.
And while you’re at it, why not break a few more kimchi conventions along the way? Slather it on French toast, fold it into a mac and cheese, or strangest of all—have it on toast with peanut butter!? (It works, trust us.)
- 1 whole napa cabbage (2-3 pounds)
- 1/4 cup kosher salt
- 2 cups water
- 1 1/2 tablespoons glutinous/Thai rice flour (regular rice flour also works)
- 1/4 cup fish sauce
- 1 cup chili flakes, or more depending on how spicy you want it
- 10 cloves of garlic
- 1 thumb-sized knob of ginger
- 1 small yellow onion
- 1.5 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1 carrot
- 1/2 a daikon radish
- 3-5 scallions
How do you like your kimchi? Let us know in the comments!