Citizens, Koreans have an abiding love for both pickling and cabbage, as best exemplified by the Korean national dish, kimchee – a spicy, garlicky pickled cabbage dish that is a favorite of TFD.
If you ever visit Korea, you will really get to appreciate how integral kimchi is to the culture of the country. EVERY meal – breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks are served with kimchi.
In November, when the country begins its nation-wide preparations for the bitter Korean winter, everyone is at market buying cabbage to put up for Winter kimchee. Even the newspapers are full of tips on how to best prepare it, store it, etc. It’s much like our national obsession with turkey for Thanksgiving – except it’s year-round!
In ancient times, Kimchee was called ji, which eventually evolved into timchae in the period of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. The word then was modified into jimchi, and is currently kimchi.
Red chili pepper flakes (introduced by European traders) are now used as the main ingredient for spice and source of heat for many varieties of kimchi.
Kimchi is truly Korea’s national dish. During South Korea’s involvement in the Vietnam War, its government requested American help to ensure that South Korean troops, reportedly “desperate” for the food, could obtain it in the field.
South Korean president Park Chung-hee told U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson that kimchi was “vitally important to the morale of Korean troops”.
It was even sent into space on board Soyuz TMA-12 with Korean astronaut Yi So-yeon, after a multimillion-dollar research effort was successfully undertaken to kill the bacteria and lessen the odor without affecting taste.
My version of this classic dish is closely based on the finest complete recipe for Kimchee I’ve ever found – “Growing up in a Korean Kitchen – a Cookbook”, by Hi Soo Shin Hepinstall.
Battle on – The Generalissimo
5 pounds Napa Cabbage
1 ¼ cups coarse sea salt or kosher salt, plus additional if needed
2 tablespoons sweet rice flour (preferred) or all-purpose wheat flour – buy sweet rice flour on Amazon here
2 tablespoons finely chopped saeu chot (salted shrimp) or myolch’i chot (salted anchovy) or use Chinese-style shrimp paste/sauce (TFD suggestion)
1 cup koch’u karu (Korean hot red pepper powder) – buy it on Amazon here
1 pound Daikon, peeled and cut into 3-inch matchsticks
1 hot red Korean pepper, or ½ red bell pepper, seeded, deribbed and cut diagonally into ¼-inch strips
1 hot green Korean pepper, or Jalapeno, seeded, deribbed and cut diagonally into ¼-inch strips
4 green onions, white and pale green part only, cut diagonally into ½-inch pieces
2 green onions, white and pale green part only, cut diagonally into 1 ½-inch pieces
2 cloves garlic, crushed and finely chopped
2 cloves black garlic, crushed and mashed
4 walnut halves, finely chopped
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger juice or grated ginger
½ cup sugar, plus additional if needed
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
4 ounces mustard greens, cut into 1 ½-inch pieces (optional)
2 ounces chonggak (green seaweed), minced (optional) or use dried Wakame seaweed, rehydrated
2 fresh hot red peppers for garnish
Wash the cabbage once and drain. Remove the tough outer leaves and reserve for later use. Trim off the very bottom of the cabbage, leaving enough of the root end intact to hold the cabbage together.
Hold the root end up with one hand and, with a sharp knife, slice the cabbage lengthwise halfway down. With both hands, split the cabbage into halves (in this way, the cabbage will divide cleanly). If the cabbage is large, the halves can be sliced lengthwise into quarters. Wash once more, but do not drain.
Place the cabbage pieces and any leaves that have separated from them into a large (at least 6-quart capacity) non-reactive bowl, arranging them in one layer with cut sides up.
Sprinkle one cup salt between the leaves and on top. Dissolve the remaining ¼-cup salt into 1 cup lukewarm water and sprinkle this evenly over the cabbage. Let sit for 3 hours, shifting the cabbage every hour to evenly slat the pieces.
As water is drawn out of the cabbage, the salt solution will eventually cover all the pieces completely. During the last hour, test every 15 minutes – the cabbage should have the consistency of a crunchy dill pickle. Rinse several times and drain in a colander. Set aside. Discard the salt water and reuse the bowl for stuffing the cabbage.
To make the stuffing, in a small saucepan, dissolve the sweet rice flour in 1 cup water. Bring to a boil and decrease the heat to medium-low. Gently cook for two minutes, until it becomes a paste, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Let cool.
In the large bowl, combine the sweet rice paste, saeu chot (or shrimp paste) and kochu karu. Mix well into a bright, deep red paste. Add all the remaining ingredients for the stuffing and mix into a tomato sauce-like consistency.
Wearing rubber gloves, place one cabbage leaf in the bowl with the stuffing. Starting with the out leaves and working in, insert the stuffing between the leaves, smearing it generously on each leaf. Tightly press the leaves together to make a bundle, and transfer it into a sterilized 5 quart jar with a screw top lid. Repeat with the remaining cabbage pieces.
Press down firmly on the bundles to pack well and remove trapped air bubbles. Use the reserved outer leaves and loose individual leaves to wipe up the remaining stuffing at the bottom and sides of the bowl; spread these leaves to cover the kimchi.
Add a little water to the bowl to mix with the remaining bits and pieces of the stuffing and pour over the kimchi. Pack in well. All must be immersed in liquid (add more water if needed, but be sure to leave at least 2 inches of space at the top of each jar).
Close the jar lid tight and double wrap in plastic bags. Secure the neck of the jar with rubber bands to keep the kimchi fresh and to prevent odors. Set aside at room temperature overnight. The next day, ladle some of the juice out of the jar, taste, and adjust the saltiness if necessary by adding either additional salt or sugar to the kimchi.
Let mature at room temperature for 2-3 days more, then transfer to the refrigerator to stop fermentation. This red-hot and robust kimchi will have hot, sweet, salty and spicy flavor. For more tang, leave it at room temperature for 1 more day. The kimchi will stay fresh for 1 month or more, but will gradually become more sour.
A few hours before serving, wearing rubber gloves, transfer one whole piece to a non-staining, non-reactive cutting board and slice it crosswise into 1 ½ inch layered sections. In a glass dish, arrange on a bed of fresh lettuce or cabbage leaves.
Garnish with the hot red peppers. Tightly wrap the dish with plastic wrap and return to the refrigerator. Serve well-chilled at the center of the table as a side dish or relish.