“Did you try popping your ears?” my mom asks me over the phone, as I’m standing in the home goods aisle of H Mart.
That’s her answer for everything, including my bad week. Not to say that she takes my dips lightly. But unlike my friends or my cousins or even my brother, Jean often tries to link my lows with something physiological. Oh, you're depressed? There must be something wrong with your chemisms. (Her sister is a nurse, so she knows.)
And yet, even though I know a mere popping of my ears won’t resolve how I’m feeling on the inside, there’s something in the simple imperative (“Just pop your ears”) that comforts me. I laugh, and shake it off. One call to my mother in Atlanta and instantly I feel a little better. When I’m at my worst, I often forget that there’s a person out there who knows exactly what to say when I'm in a pickle—someone much wiser, much older, and much more empathetic.
I realize I've been standing in the home goods section staring at a wall of sake glasses, grocery basket still empty. So I steer the conversation toward her kimchi recipe, the reason I called her originally. I already hear her straightening up (it's late, which means she's in bed or on the couch watching TV). "Okay, so," she starts, "you'll need..."
- 1 head napa cabbage ("You're only making one head, right? That'll be plenty for you.")
- 1 small daikon radish ("This gets cut up into little matchsticks and goes into the sauce. Makes the kimchi taste fresh.")
- 5 scallions, cut into 1-inch pieces ("Scallions make a world of difference.")
- 1 potato ("You know that rice flour paste most kimchi recipes call for? I've actually started using a potato instead. Works better.")
- 6 to 7 garlic cloves ("That should be enough for one head of cabbage.")
- 1-inch piece ginger ("I don't know, a pinky's worth?")
- 1/4 onion ("A quarter of one should be enough for the sauce.")
- 1/4 Asian pear ("You don't have to add this, but I always do. It's my secret.")
- 1/4 cup fish sauce ("Usually it's anchovy sauce, but you have fish sauce at home right? Just use that.")
- 1/4 cup salted shrimp ("You know what that is, right?")
- 1/2 cup gochugaru aka Korean red pepper powder ("Your kimchi is only as good as the gochugaru you use. I bring mine over from Korea every year—high-quality, expensive stuff.")
- Salt and sugar ("Salt is the main ingredient! Sugar makes it taste better.")
- Optional add-ins ("Sometimes I like to add tomatoes, apples, bell peppers—the more things you add to the cabbage, the better everything will taste, really.")
I’m laugh-crying in H Mart right now—because what else would one do in an H Mart? I’m laughing because my mother is cackling over the phone at her poor excuse of a recipe (the measurements above are my translations, English and culinary).
“I don’t know, one or two fistfuls of this?” she chuckles again. “Three or four mugfuls of that? I'm terrible.”
It’s funny to me, too. Okay, I tell myself, that’s like three cups. A coffee mug is usually eight ounces. And two tablespoons is what she means by "two rice spoonfuls." I'm also crying because I’m overwhelmed at how much better I feel just hearing her voice and her booming cackle.
Jean has a few rules about kimchi—and they’re not strict, mind you, but they’re hers. Which is to say that this kimchi is her kimchi and no one else’s. But in my highly subjective opinion, this is the absolute best way to make it. I’ll do my best to walk you through our notes from the phone call, but please, feel free to add your own flourishes here and there as you see fit. So much of this is to taste, anyway.
1. Brine the cabbage.
This first step is essential for a couple of reasons: 1) It kills off any harmful bacteria that may be in the vegetable, leaving room for the good bacteria, aka Lactobacillus, to grow during the lacto-fermentation process that gives kimchi its distinct, pleasurable tang. 2) It also removes water from the cell walls, which aids in preservation later and, more importantly, in flavor. I've always thought of it as: less water means more concentrated cabbage taste (plus, the sauce will penetrate better).
My phone call with Mom was revealing, to say the least. I thought I had remembered her dry-brining the cabbage all those years, which is to say: placing huge buckets of napa, each cut in half or into quarters lengthwise from the root-end to about halfway up to the greener leafier part (but not all the way through). Yes, she still cuts them this way, claiming that the kimchi, when left intact like this, ripens slower but ends up tasting crunchier and yummier. But tonight she mentioned a salt bath, or wet brine, which does sound like a more uniform way to draw out water from the cabbage.
I go home and try to fit the cabbage into the biggest bucket I've got: my salad spinner. Of course, it doesn't fit. So I cut it up into bite-size pieces (it fits!), cover with tap water, and sprinkle over a non-iodized table sea salt I accidentally bought the other day, thinking the grains would be much bigger (but guess what small-grained salt is perfect for?). I remember what my mom said about brining smaller pieces like this: You'll only need to do it for 2 to 3 hours, versus the 6 to 8–hour brine of those whole heads. (I added the scallions here too, with the idea in mind that I'm also "kimchi-ing" them.)
One important tip my mom mentioned is to smoosh the cabbage around, making sure the salt and water and all of the vegetables get properly, evenly, salted.
Drain, then let sit while you prepare the sauce.
2. Make the sauce.
This next part is the easiest. Well, kind of. First, you have to make the paste, which will become the base of the kimchi sauce. This paste is really just a vehicle for all of the seasonings, to stretch the sauce so it covers more cabbage. I was shocked to learn that my mom now makes hers with...a potato! For years I watched her do it the classic way with glutinous rice flour, water, bubbled away until thick, then cooled. But I just tried her new method (which she picked up from her sister in Seoul) and it worked great.
For Jean's paste: Peel a potato, then grate it directly into a cup or so of boiling water until you've got a thick puree.
I ended up only needing about half of the potato to create a loose mashed potato situation. Don't worry too much about whether it's too thick or too thin; you'll only need about 1/2 cup of this stuff for this kimchi recipe. But if you're like my mom, you'll make more.
Here's why: Jean likes to make a big batch of kimchi sauce and keep some back in the freezer so she can "kimchi" anything at a moment's notice. So if you end up with extra potato paste, don't throw it out.
Now we're at the easy part. In a small food processor, blitz the garlic, ginger, onion, pear, fish sauce, salted shrimp, gochugaru, and (to taste) salt and sugar. Stir this gorgeous red paste into the potato paste. At this point I actually don't even bother to taste (neither does my mom). What matters is how your seasonings taste with the cabbage. So onto the next step...
3. Smoosh it all around.
Just get in there! (With clean hands.)
4. Taste, taste, taste.
Growing up, this is the point at which my mom would hold a container of salt in one hand and mix with the other, crouched down over a huge plastic bowl filled with crimson kimchi. She'd taste as she went, adjusting the salt, sugar, and red pepper powder until it was just right. I'd be watching from a couple feet away, her little taster; she'd call me over and pick out one perfect piece, wiping off any excess sauce, folding it up, holding it out ("Open!"), and placing it in my mouth.
"More salt? More sugar?" she'd ask.
Unfermented kimchi tastes great—different, but great. Which is why it's important to adjust at this stage according to your own tastes. Ask yourself: Does it need more salt? More sweetness? When I made this kimchi recently, I felt that it needed more savoriness, so I added another tablespoon of the salted shrimp.
5. Jar the kimchi and wait.
Large mason jars are great for storing and fermenting kimchi (but I just reuse old 3-pound H Mart kimchi buckets). Sometimes my mom sets aside a small portion of the unfermented kimchi so she and my dad can enjoy it throughout the week. But if you're in it for the funky stuff, then leave on the counter at room temperature for about 24 hours, then place in the fridge for a week or so. I like to taste as I go, i.e. 3 days later, 7 days later, 14 days later, because each version will taste different and funkier the longer it sits in the fridge.
Or if you're like my mom, you'll buy two (two!) separate kimchi fridges—one in the basement and one in the garage—to store your sta$h. And you'll forget about it completely until it's nice and ripe and rank, perfect for Korean dishes like kimchi jjigae and kimchi fried rice.
Here's one my mom sent me, claiming this is pretty close to how she does it herself (but the lady here makes three heads of napa cabbage and keeps them whole):