The Korean term “Kimchi” 김치 is a general term for pickled vegetables, however when Koreans mention “kimchi” they usually refer to napa cabbage kimchi since napa cabbage (“baechu ” 배추) is the most common vegetable used to make kimchi.
There are no fixed recipes for kimchi, each family in Korea has their own recipe which may include additional ingredients apart from the primary ingredients i.e., napa cabbage, radish, chili flakes, garlic, ginger, scallions, salt and fish sauce. For instance, some families include green apples while some families leave out carrots.
Ancient Korean kitchens featured a “hakdok” 학독 – Korea’s version of a pestle and mortar in which the kimchi seasoning ingredients were ground into a fine paste. This clay-based, organic kitchen utensil has been used for centuries, however, modern cooks turn to a food processor. While food processors are considerably faster, easier and require less elbow grease, it is generally accepted that the traditional method of producing the kimchi seasoning pastes in a “hakdok” yields better results taste-wise and nutrition-wise, as the sheer speed of the food processor blades upsets the nutritional and flavor profile of the ingredients.
For centuries, Koreans made kimchi in “breathing pottery” known as “ong-gi” 옹기, which is a traditional earthen urn, made with clay and is porous, hence the description “breathing pottery”. Although used for a variety of purposes, ong-gi are primarily used for fermenting and storing bean pastes, pepper pastes, soy sauces and pickled vegetables (such as kimchi).
After the harvest, towards the end of autumn, large quantities of kimchi would be prepared in a communal tradition dating as far back as the 13th century known as “gimjang” 김장 in Korean. The ong-gi would be filled with the freshly-made kimchi and then buried underground, preserving the kimchi throughout the winter months. This process of burying the ong-gi underground maintains the ong-gi (and thus its contents) at a temperature that is higher than outside where temperatures often drop below freezing during winter. This underground temperature (around 32 – 35 °F or 0 – 1.5 °C) proved to be the optimal temperature to ferment kimchi over a long period of time (over a year or two is not uncommon) and thereby providing a reliable supply of food during winter. Before the invention of mechanical refrigeration systems, this was the method Koreans depended on for food preservation.
It is generally accepted among Koreans that kimchi fermented according to this ancient and traditional method is the most flavorful and wholesome. Modern day recipes may accelerate the kimchi fermentation process by placing the kimchi at room temperature for a few days before transferring it to the fridge. However, a slower fermentation at the optimum temperature of around 32 – 35 °F or 0 – 1.5 °C, as was practised in the olden days would yield a tastier and healthier kimchi. A minimum of 20 days would be needed for the kimchi to fully ferment and the longer it ferments in this constant temperature the more flavorful it becomes.
Nowadays, households have switched from these traditional vessels to modern-day kitchen containers made with materials such as ceramic, glass and plastic. While these containers are functionally adequate, it is generally accepted that kimchi produced in an ong-gi is superior taste-wise and health-wise than those produced in such modern containers.
- 2 1/2 kilograms (about 6 pounds) napa cabbage
- 3/4 – 1 cup coarse sun dried sea salt
- 2 cups Korean radish – julienned
- 1/4 Asian pear – julienned
- 7 – 9 scallions (aka green onions) – cut to 2-inch pieces
- 1 cup carrots – julienned (optional)
- 1 cup water dropwort (optional)
For glutinous rice flour mixture:
- 2 cups water
- 2 tablespoons sweet rice flour (also known as glutinous rice flour)
For kimchi seasoning paste:
- 24 garlic cloves
- 2 teaspoons ginger
- 1 medium sized onion
- ½ cup fish sauce
- 4 tablespoons fermented salted shrimp (saeujeot 새우젓) with the salty brine – roughly chopped
- 1 3/4 – 2 cups hot pepper flakes
First, using a knife, cut a 3-inch slit at the base of the cabbage.
Using your hands, gently break open the cabbage to two halves.
Cut a 2-inch slit at the base of each half.
Repeat with all cabbages.
Immerse the napa cabbage halves in water for a while and then drain the water.
Apply salt onto every leaf of the cabbage, particularly to the portions closer to the root.
Set aside the cabbage leaves. The timing of this brining process varies depending on factors such as the temperature of the air and the size of the salt crystals; the colder the air, the longer the time required. Coarse salt crystals requires more time than fine salt crystals. The time could vary from as little as 6 hours to over 12 hours. The key is to check the cabbage leaves every now and then – if the leaves have wilted and can be bent backwards without snapping, the brining process is complete.
Every half an hour, turn the cabbages to allow a thorough and even salting.
In the meantime prepare the porridge. Combine the water and glutinous rice flour in a heavy bottom pot. Cook over medium heat until it starts to bubble and forms a thin paste, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon.
Stop heat and set aside to cool completely.
In a hakdok, finely crush the ginger, garlic and onion.
Add fermented salted shrimp. Mash it well.
Add fish sauce. Mix well.
Add hot pepper flakes and mix thoroughly with the pestle.
Pour the cooled sweet rice porridge. Mash and mix thoroughly into a fine, well homogenized paste.
Add the radish, Asian pear, green onions, carrots, and dropwort (if using). Combine well and set this mixture aside to allow the flavors to develop.
Check the cabbage leaves – they will have shrunk and turned limp. Bend one of the leaves backwards and if it doesn’t snap and is very pliable, the cabbage is ready. If it does snap or is not very pliable, let it sit for several hours more.
When the cabbage leaves are ready, wash the cabbage leaves thoroughly under cold running water. Tear off a piece from the cabbage leaf and taste it. It should taste saltier than what one would normally find acceptable. Similar to sauerkraut, as the kimchi ferments, this saltiness tends to decrease.
Tear apart the halves into quarters making use of the 2-inch slit cut at the base of cabbage.
Apply the paste into each and every cabbage leaf, this is best done with hands (use gloves to prevent hands from stinging from the salt and chili).
Fold the cabbage quarters to form individual pieces.
Place the folded cabbage leaves into the ong-gi that has been cleaned and dried. It is critical to ensure there is not a drop of water in the ong-gi.
Press down the kimchi to ensure the cabbage leaves are submerged in the liquid.
The kimchi can be eaten right away but tastes better if fermented slowly in a cool environment like the ancient Koreans did. Place it in the fridge and let it ferment slowly. Similar to the ancient Koreans’ underground fermentation method, once in the fridge the kimchi could last for months (about 6 months), but will get more sour (and more flavorful) the longer it sits.