This time last year my obsession with fermentation was at an all time high. I made several batches of sauerkraut, really got my hands deep in stinky cabbage, and my kitchen smelt of discomfort. The maids complained, the sisters weren’t on the same lactobateria bandwagon as I was, and my mother would walk out hurriedly each time I unbottled to check if my kraut was alive. Obviously I didn’t lose heart and pushed on. You can read about the fruits of my labour here or on The Eat Post. I have also included recipes for a beet kraut, a lemon-cucumber kraut and a carrot kraut.
Today, I consider myself a half-decent preservationist, and I’ve been ready to talk about Kimchi for some time now. Byung-Hi Lim in her book ‘Kimchi’ writes, “Kimchi has a bold flavour – chilli-hot with plenty of saltiness and a distinct acidity, a thoroughly umami flavour from the fish sauce and that special somewhat bittersweet experience of fermentation”.
The rules for kimchi may seem similar to those for making kraut, but they are actually quite different. The major difference between the two is that kimchi cabbage is left overnight in the salt brine, while kraut is simply drained and packed after its salt massage. Another difference is the addition of sugar, which is extra food for the bacteria. I’ve compared techniques- both authentic and contemporary Korean to really decipher which one works the best for an Indian home kitchen.
Some of you already know that gochugaru, a Korean red pepper powder is essential for making authentic kimchi. Unfortunately, this is not readily available in India, and I wouldn’t want you to go to great heights to procure it. The gochugaru is a lot more mild than unadulterated chilli powder and a Mexican habanero. Our Kashmiri chilli powder is mild and comes close to it, so I’ve used that. I insist on using freshly pound Kashmiri chilli powder.
Korean Kimchi Needs Chinese Cabbage
You’ll need a whole head of Chinese cabbage to begin with. An average head here would weigh anywhere between 800g to a kilo, enough to fill a medium-sized mason jar that fits snugly into your refrigerator. You want to cut the cabbage into 1-inch pieces. Discard any loose outer leaves. You just want the nice firm ones that stand their ground inside.
Salty Like The Sea? Maybe Not.
Sea salt or coarse salt is what you would generally add to your kimchi. The addition of salt is to break down the cell structure of the leaves and allow for more flavours to seep in later. Massaging the salt into the cabbage will result in it releasing brine. You must also add some sugar at this stage. Old Korean families will tell you that you’re supposed to leave the kimchi overnight with this sugar and salt brine, but I popped it in the refrigerator, like David Chang and it seemed perfectly wilted and ready to pack by morning.
Tasting your cabbage at this stage is crucial. It can’t be VERY salty. If it is, just rinse the cabbage once and taste again. It should taste salty, but not enough to make you cringe. You can also adjust the salt levels in the kimchi paste that you’ll be adding to this cabbage.
The Best Kimchi Paste EVER
Reminiscent of the Malaysian sambal belacan, the garlic, ginger, chillies and fish combo is what turns a pile of salty cabbage into kimchi. Almost 1/2 cup of Kashmiri chilli goes into the kimchi paste together with minced ginger, garlic, sugar, fish sauce, soy sauce and my personal favourite, dry prawns or sukka javla. I’m generous with how much javla I add because I don’t mind its overpowering fishy taste. Add spring onions or leeks, mooli (radish) or carrots to this and you’re done. Thin out this kimchi paste with some water if it’s too thick (you want it to run and not look creamy) and get ready to pack.
Packing Your Kimchi
Drain the cabbage from its brining liquid and add to your chilli paste. Combine using your fingers in a scooping motion to lift and cover the cabbage till the chilli paste has coated all the cabbage leaves. In a sterilised jar, add a layer of kimchi and press down gently to release brine. Add another layer and keep repeating till you have packed your whole jar. Top with any remaining kimchi juice and return this to the refrigerator. Your kimchi will taste best after 2 weeks and even better after a month.
Chinese Cabbage 1 head
Coarse Salt 2 tbsp
Sugar 2 tbsp
Garlic 25 small cloves, minced
Ginger 25 slices or 2 knobs, minced
Kashmiri Chilli Powder fresh, blitzed to yield about 1/2 cup of ground powder
Fish sauce 1/4 cup
Light Soy Sauce 1/4 cup (I used Sil Soya Sauce)
Dry prawns 3 tsp, or more
Discard the loose outer leaves of the the cabbage and chop the firm ones into 1-inch squares. Massage the cabbage slices with 2 tbsp of the coarse salt and 2 tbsp of sugar for five to ten minutes until it starts to release brine. Let it sit in the refrigerator overnight. The leaves will become loose and wilted and will release all their brine by morning.
Mix together the ingredients for the kimchi paste.
Drain the cabbage from the brine and follow the instructions above under the paragraph titled ‘Packing Your Kimchi’.