Question – What Asian dish has attained a cult popularity, but continues to scare the bejezus out of most diners? If you guessed, Kim Chi -and I bet you did- you nailed it. I’ve been eating Kim Chi for a long time now, but mostly a bite here, a bite there, kind of eating – it wasn’t until last year that I finally decided I liked the stuff, and frankly, it took a combo of incidents to turn the corner for me.
My serious introduction to all things fermented started a few years ago when I came home from heart surgery – the docs put me on a probiotic from the health food store, to build my immune system back up – and that started me doing some research into all those ‘good’ bacteria, and how we can keep them healthy and working on our behalf. It came as a bit of a surprise that so many of the best probiotic fermented foods came right out of the garden – and another surprise that these were not a newly discovered medical breakthrough, but something that had been eaten for thousands of years – even more back then than today!
Last summer, I used a bunch of different veggies from my own garden to ferment and create probiotic foods – things like sauerkraut and dill pickles – and even more pickles of green tomatoes, garlic, and green beans – and yes, I also made some Kim Chi too. Fermenting vegetables is as simple as it gets, which is the major reason why our ancestors did it – you sprinkle salt over the vegetables, put a loose lid on to keep the bugs out, and in a few days, you have fermented vegetables. And you don’t even need the salt for fermentation to happen, the only reason for the salt is that it keeps the bad bacteria at bay until the good lactic acid bacteria can take over.
I learned a lot about fermented foods last summer – and in the process, I also learned why I wasn’t really a Kim Chi fan – sit tight, I’ll tell all.
Do you like sauerkraut? I like it a lot. Well, sauerkraut is Kim Chi’s brother – they are so similar, that really there is only one thing that separates them – chilies – you know, the hot ones! Koreans -Kim Chi being Korean- eat some of the world’s hottest foods, bless their souls – believe me, I’m not a wimp – I eat my share of hot foods – but I can’t handle the Kim Chi that most Koreans eat. And that was reason #1 why I didn’t really enjoy eating Kim Chi – it’s just usually too damn hot!
Reason #2? Kim Chi is NOT one of those foods that improve with age. It’s also not one of those foods that freezes well (ruins the texture), or that cans well (unless you don’t mind broken glass in your food), or that stays forever in your fridge. The truth is that Kim Chi, just like all other fermented foods, never stops fermenting – and the process of fermentation changes the chemical structure of a food. You can never stop Kim Chi from its long, slow process of fermentation – you can slow it down, by putting it in the fridge, but it’ll still continue to ferment. And if you leave it in the fridge for 9 months, or a year, and then you eat it, I don’t think you’ll enjoy it – the older Kim Chi gets, the funkier it tastes. And that’s reason #2 why I just couldn’t learn to like Kim Chi, I was always eating old Kim Chi.
In my quest for Kim Chi I could eat and would enjoy, I came on David Chang’s version – Chang’s wildly popular Momofuku restaurant empire of New York City’s lower East Side has seemed to have discovered a way of introducing many of the tastes and flavors of his Asian heritage, but almost always in a reinvention that links the often fickle New York taste buds with the flavors of his childhood. But Chang bristles at the suggestion that he’s an Asian chef – ‘I’m an American chef!’, he states with conviction, ‘an American chef doing some bad fusion cooking.’ And a quick look at Momofuku’s most popular dishes, seem to bear that out – fried chicken, pork in all guises, Brussels sprouts, and desserts which reflect a southern bearing more than anything Asian.
Not that Chang forgets his roots when working on new dishes for Momofuku, there’s almost always a link or two in every dish. And he uses Kim Chi in many ways: a Kim Chi stew (but not just like Mom used to make!); Kim Chi and bleu cheese croissant; braised pork ramen w. Kim Chi; and a beef consumme done in the classic style w. Kim Chi – and of course, Kim Chi is also available as a condiment as well.
So, for a guy who loves his Kim Chi, and has used it in many ways in innovative dishes, what could be better than to discover his own personal recipe for the stuff – David Chang’s Kim Chi is not his mother’s version, he’s not a fan of letting it sit out at room temp until the fermentation is well under way, which is the standard way fermenting vegetables. Instead, Chang slips it into the refrigerator as soon as it’s made, and lets it attain its fermentation in a cool environment – in this way, the resulting Kim Chi will keep its prime condition even longer, and thereby maybe scare off fewer potential Kim Chi eaters.
If you give Chang’s Kim Chi a try, what you need to know up front is that keeping it in your fridge is the best way to keep it while you are eating it (Kim Chi is classically eaten as a condiment or side dish with most meals in Korea). If you live in a place with really cold winters, and you can find a room where the temps stay very cool but do not freeze, that environment can sub for the fridge – but for most of us, finding some space in the refrigerator is the way to go. Chang’s recipe here will make 2-4 tightly packed pint jars of Kim Chi, or one or two quarts, depending on how much cabbage you are working with.
And once you make your Kim Chi, it really only needs a week or two in the fridge before it’s nicely flavored. As Chang says somewhere, you can certainly begin eating your Kim Chi on day two if you wish, you just need to know that day two Kim Chi is not as full flavored as two week Kim Chi will be. Kim Chi is one of those foods that you make more of when you run out, you don’t make up a year’s worth each summer like you would strawberry jam – keep that in mind, and your Kim Chi will always be at its best.
As usual, I managed to screw up the recipe creator’s instructions – when it came to the place where he asks you to drain the cabbage, I didn’t do that – so my Kim Chi had a thin, saucy brine rather than the thick pasty marinade it was supposed to have – it’s not a killer mistake, but you don’t need to do it.
I used regular green cabbage, because I’ve got tons of it in the garden, and as Chang says, you can use any vegetable to make Kim Chi – and I cut it into 1″ pieces. The only departure from his instructions that I took was in a radical reduction of the chile powder – Chang calls for a half cup of kochukaru, Korean chile powder – having no kochukaru, instead I used 3 Tbs of the cayenne I did have, which I suspect is a tamer version of the kochukaru. I retrospect, I probably could have used more of the cayenne, but San will probably eat this version more readily.
I think Chang’s Kim Chi is the best version I’ve ever done – and my favorite way of eating it -in respect of not destroying its friendly bacteria by overheating it- is to just serve it over hot rice, right out of the fridge, or to put a small amount on my plate as a condiment – I also like to sprinkle a little bit of seseme seed over it to give it a little more character – not that it doesn’t have plenty of its own!
Hope you get a chance to make some of this for yourself – I know you’ll enjoy it.