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Korean language and culture series: Cabbage kimchi

There have been several requests to do posts on Korean food, and as great of an idea I thought it was, I had been reluctant to do so. As much as I love eating, I’m not much of a cook myself. But as I helped my family do our kimjang kimchi this past weekend, I realized that there might still be some merit to doing such posts. Even if I’m not a great cook myself, there are those around me who are – my 50+ year old mother and my 70+ year old grandma. And after having watched them cook, helping them out, and most importantly, eating their cooking all my life, I decided that perhaps there really might be something of interest that I can offer to our readers.

And so not only because we just made kimchi, but since it is after all a staple dish in any Korean meal, Electric Ground’s first “foodie” post is on, you guessed it, kimchi! There are actually hundreds of kimchi varieties out there, but the most “standard” one is of course napa cabbage kimchi (배추김치).

As suggested by its name, napa cabbage kimchi is made from napa cabbages. Although nappa cabbage kimchi (hereby shortened to simply “cabbage kimchi”) is available (and eaten) all year round these days thanks to advanced agricultural techniques, nappa cabbages are naturally harvested in late autumn and early winter. And thus until the 1970s, it was rare to find cabbage kimchi available, if at all, in the summer months.

Instead, Koreans traditionally made lots… and lots… and lots… of cabbage kimchi in late autumn and early winter soon after the harvesting of the nappa cabbages. At this time, cabbage kimchi, along with other kimchi varieties, were prepared so that they could be stored and enjoyed for the rest of winter. This is called kimjang.

Gu Jun Pyo watches with fascination as he watches Geum Jandi and her family
make their kimjang kimchi in
Boys Over Flowers

Even though nappa cabbages are now available all four seasons, many Koreans still make the most amount of cabbage kimchi during the kimjang season, which stretches from October (for the early birds) to early December (for the procrastinators). That is, if they make it themselves at all since many Koreans today opt to buy ready-made kimchi at stores.

The families pick a convenient day to do their kimjang kimchi, and the big day when they actually make it is called the kimjang day. Even today, kimjang day is an entire family affair with every member of the family helping out to do their part. In the past, kimjang day was a community affair with many neighbors gathering together to help each other out. What can I say? We, Koreans, eat a lot of kimchi!

Just as there are many kimchi varieties out there, there are many different ways to make even the same type of kimchi. The recipe for cabbage kimchi varies by individual preferences, between families, and by regions. Some common add-ons include fresh oysters and shrimps.

But as I actually don’t like the smell of oysters in my kimchi, I usually rule against adding them in. And so our family’s recipe is the most basic type used by the great majority of Koreans, without any specific regional characteristics.

How to make cabbage kimchi, Blue’s family-style:

CABBAGES

1. Cut the cabbages in half lengthwise (for about a few inches), and then use your hands to actually split them in half. This helps the cabbages to be split in their natural halves and prevent the leaves from breaking. You may remove any of the particularly thick and coarse outer leaves. (They are too rough to eat anyway, and so you can use them to cover the kimchi during storage later.)

2. Add coarse salt to water, and soak the cabbages in the salt water. Sprinkle some salt between the leaves, focusing on the stems. (It’s really hard to say exactly how much salt. I grab the salt so that it fills my thumb, index, middle and ring fingers, and just toss them in between the leaves in quick motion. Try not to open up the leaves too much. )

3. Keep the soaked/salted cabbages in a large open container for several hours. My grandma likes to put another container filled with water on top of the cabbages to press down upon them. The general rule is to leave the cabbages aside overnight (approx. 5-8 hours). Around the half way mark, turn the cabbages over so that they’re evenly prepared.

Make note of your cabbages. If they’re thicker, they should be soaked longer. If they’re more tender, they will be ready in a shorter time. To make a good-tasting kimchi, check the cabbages constantly. You know it’s done when the leaves become limp… but you don’t want the leaves TOO limp that they look like a rag.

4. Once it’s done, wash the cabbages in cold water three times, or until the cabbages are no longer “slippery” from the salt water.

5. Let the cabbages drain. Cut off the stem (circled in the above photo) and gently squeeze the ends of the cabbages to drain out the extra water.

RADISHES

 

1. While you’re waiting for the cabbages to get ready, you can prepare the daikon radishes. According to my grandma, the best tasting daikon radishes are those that have a crack running down them as they tend to be sweeter. But take that advice with a grain of salt.

We prepared one box of napa cabbages for our kimjang kimchi, and used three medium sized daikon radishes. Cut away any stems and peel away any particularly dirty parts, but you don’t have to peel the skin off the radishes in its entirety. In fact, it is recommended that you don’t to prevent the radishes from becoming soggy later. Pretty important when making cubed radish kimchi, another kimchi type. But for cabbage kimchi, do as you prefer.

2. Next, wash the radishes thoroughly. In Family Outing, Lee Chun Hee washed his radishes with soap. I hope we all have the intellect to know that is… umm, wrong, right? DO NOT DO THAT!

3. Next, cut the radishes into thin strips.

KIMCHI PASTE

 

1. Fill a large pot with water and add sweet rice flour until it looks like skim milk. Mix it up. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. When it starts to boil and bubbles form, turn it off and let the mixture cool.

2. Once the mixture is cooled, add it to several cups of red pepper powder. (Note: Make sure to use red pepper powder for making kimchi. The finer red pepper powder is for making red pepper paste. You don’t want to use that.)

3. Add about a cup of minced garlic, 1 spoon of minced ginger, and 1/2 of an onion, minced.

4. Add about a cup of fish sauce (멸치액젓) and a cup of salted shrimp (새우젓). Add some more salt and new sugar (artificial sweetener) to taste.

5. Mix everything well.

6. Add the thinly sliced radishes. Mix everything.

7. Cut 7-8 green onions into 2 inch strips, and cut one batch of leaf mustard into 2 inch strips as well. Add to the kimchi paste and mix everything. Mix, mix, mix!

(Note: The above recipe is a very rough estimate. The true Blue’s family recipe is “pour, pour, pour, stop, taste.” I’m guessing it’ll be roughly equivalent to a cup…)

MAKING KIMCHI

 

1. Gently spread the kimchi paste onto each leaf of the cabbage. (Wear gloves!)

2. Taste. Add more fish sauce, salted shrimp, salt, sugar as you see fit.

3. If you’re pleased, continue #1. Store in an air-tight container. (The above photos are that of my grandma’s kimchi!)

FERMENTING YOUR KIMCHI

 

In the past, kimchi was stored in large earthen stone pots and buried underground, with just the top of the jar sticking above ground so that you can retrieve the kimchi. It was partly because there were no refrigerators available, but as you had it, this was the ideal environment for storing your kimchi. The ideal environment for kimchi is to ripen it at a constant, stable temperature of 0 degrees Celsius, which turned out to be close to the temperature of Korea’s soil one foot underground during the winter months.

So many Koreans reminisced over this old-school kimchi that the big electronic companies used the science behind burying kimchi underground to come up with the idea of a kimchi refrigerator.

Yup, that’s right – a fridge for storing your kimchi! The temperature of a kimchi refrigerator is set to be optimal for storing kimchi and whereas a normal refrigerator is constantly opened and closed throughout the day so that the temperature may constantly fluctuate one or two degrees, a kimchi fridge is set so that it’s absolutely constant. The larger, newer kimchi fridges have separate compartments to store different types of kimchi all at their own optimal setting.

We’ve recently purchased a kimchi fridge, and as silly as I thought the idea of having a refrigerator just to store your kimchi was, I must admit. Our kimchi tastes much, much better when stored in a kimchi fridge. I was pretty impressed by the difference, and since then, I became a believer!

But most non-Koreans don’t have a need for a separate kimchi fridge. Then how should you store your kimchi?

It depends on your own preference. If you make lots of kimchi to last you a long time like we do, then you might want to store most of the kimchi in the fridge right away and leave one jar on the counter for a day or two to ripen before putting it in the fridge. You can eat that one jar first, and by the time you’re done with it, the others would have slowly ripened for you to eat as well.

Some people prefer fresh kimchi, whereas others prefer sour kimchi. If you like fresh kimchi and want to eat fresh kimchi as long as possible, refrigerate right away. If you prefer sour kimchi, leave outside for a day, or two, or three, before refrigerating it. Either way, whether or not you refrigerate your kimchi right away, it’ll eventually turn sour in the fridge. That doesn’t mean that it went bad or rotten. Kimchi is fermented food, and pretty much never goes bad. So you can continue eating it until you run out! In fact, sour kimchi is preferred when making certain dishes made from kimchi, including kimchi stew/jjigae  or kimchi fried rice. You can try eating kimchi on its own the first month, and when it starts becoming ripe, you can try making fried rice or stew with it, and then decide what you prefer.

But be forewarned. Kimchi is an acquired taste. Don’t be disappointed if you don’t like it. First timers usually end up not liking the taste or the smell. In fact, even though I like dishes made from cabbage kimchi, including kimchi jjigae, kimchi jeon, and kimchi fried rice, I myself am not a huge fan of cabbage kimchi on its own.

Bon appetit!

18 comments

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  1. kay

    YUM. thank your for sharing the Blue’s family recipe with all of us. can’t wait to make this, and i look forward to your next food series post.

  2. missjb

    nyummy….. Thank you for sharing us about kimchi… I feel hungry now…

  3. Eliza Bennet

    Thank you for sharing “how to” of making kimchi (now I can better understand the plight of poor Mae Ri!!!)

    When I visited Korea I have tasted cabbage kimchi first and loved it. During my stay there were other types of kimchi and I loved them all (my fave is radish kimchi though) and I do like everything with kimchi in it. Actually I had withdrawal symptoms when I returned home since even though we have pickled cabbages etc. here, I liked it better with garlic and hot pepper flakes. Kimchi rocks and actually make every food better.

    Also another way to eat old cabbage kimchi is to put it in the grill with other meats and garlic. It is very yummy that way too!

  4. D

    thanks fr sharing yr family recipe. There’re 2 korean eating plcs at d shopping center adjacent to d office building. For banchan, one serve fresh kimchi, the other ripe. I much prefer fresh. Had a friend who love ramyun but will never eat kimchi so i’d clear it fr her :-)

  5. estel

    Kimchi is TOTALLY an acquired taste. It took me months to actually enjoy eating kimchi, but I love it now. ^_^ Thanks so much for sharing this with us! I’ve never done kimjang but I’d really love to someday.

  6. D

    Wow, this such a coincident, I just had my first taste of Kimchi yesterday…I can totally see why this is an acquired taste

  7. snow

    thanks for this awesome food post! indeed kimchi is an acquired taste, but it’s really pretty yummy. i prefer sour kimchi, especially the radishes, they taste awesome with all that spiciness and sourness!

  8. InLove

    Kimchi makes everything better. I’m fortunate enough to live in an area wt many Koreans and so I can order Korean food anytime or pick up Kimchi for the week while running errands. :) I’m lucky like that.

  9. muchadoboutlove

    thanks for this wonderful article of kimchi recipe! I do hope that if you have some spare time, you’ll share some other simple korean dish recipes. Surely people would like to know how to do the dishes that they always watch in dramas and that would be a great help to non-Koreans!

    yum..this reminds me of delicious kimchi jjigae I had earlier this year!

  10. Laica

    Wow thank you Blue – this post is so awesome! I’ve always been curious as to exactly what goes into kimchi after watching so many drama characters make it. No wonder the whole family does it together, it’s a lot of work. Looks like prime daughter-in-law torture, lol! (I say that because we have daughter-in-law torture in my culture too.)

    But seriously, this looks delicious and is probably wonderful for family bonding. I want to make some now!

    Question – is the red pepper powder a special Korean kind, or can you use regular cayenne from the grocery store?

    1. blue

      I’ve only seen it made with the Korean brand kind made specifically for making kimchi. But I guess theoretically you could use other red pepper flakes/powder? Honestly, I’m not sure how the taste would differ, if at all.

      1. Laica

        Hmm, this calls for an experiment. :)

  11. tita

    woww,, read this post makes me want to go to korean restaurant soon!
    i loveeee kimchi jjigae. it’s fresh and spicy. love it the most.
    by the way,, thank you for the explanation Blue ^____^

  12. Tuttie

    Thanks!!!! Great post… Kimchi is delicious!!!!

  13. bella012

    A bit of grounded up apple also enhances the flavor of kimchee, my grammy’s secret ingredient!

    I’m back, finally!

  14. joonni

    I remember those kimjang days in my childhood but unfortunately, they don’t happen anymore. Still I hold out hope that maybe I will be able to do it in the future except really, it has to be a family affair since the whole process is pretty hard physically. My mom always got sick after it.

    My mom has been using a kimchi refrigerator for some years now, not only for kimchi but also for the storage of vegetables. It keeps everything fresher for longer. And certainly for the times I have had a chance to taste the kimchi from the refrigerator, it tastes good.

  15. himonogirl

    aooo, I want to love it (I swear I do) and yet I’m still not used to it. And wonder if I’ll ever be, given how I can’t stand spicy food. My mom is Moroccan, so I supposedly should love spicy food (??), but even her had to raise the white flag when I gave her Korean food to eat. haha

    I really like this idea of family gathering, with everyone lending a hand (literally) to prepare the food :D
    And lol at the Korean way of measuring ingredients! haha, Arabs are the SAME (well, Moroccans are…..wait, my MOM is!!)
    so…frustrating >__<

  16. ck1Oz

    Annyeong Blue…haven’t been here for awhile and what do I see a kimchi post :-)

    It was rainy and hailing and basically a rotten day today when I went to Chinatown.Perfect day for kimchi chigae.I had to restock my kimchi.I bought a batch that was new and from a new shop-it made my kimchi chigae taste awful last week.

    The shopkeeper must have looked at the amount I bought and said-do you want to eat my wife’s kimchi chigae?Man it was made with old kimchi and it was beautiful.Sigh all you lucky people with home-made kimchi.

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