Monday, December 29, 2008

My Favorite Kimchi: 막김치

I went through something today that I never thought I would have the stamina for: I (helped my mom while she) made kimchi (김치)!

김치, sometimes translated as kimchi, gimchi, or kimchee, is a traditional Korean side dish. It is usually spicy and made from any of a large variety of vegetables (namely cabbage and radish). It has roots that go back thousands of years (when America was not even a twinkle in an Englishman's eye) and is still sometimes referred to by its ancient name, "ji" (지).

There are many, many different types of kimchi ... an endless variety, really. This recipe (more like a list of how-to's rather than exact measurements) is just my favorite. I'm told that kimchi is a dish that is best when made by one's own mother. My poor mom has to deal with a husband and two daughters that refuse categorically to eat anyone else's kimchi. If it was purchased at a Korean grocery store, forget it. We won't touch it with a ten-foot pole.

My dad has been badgering my sister and me for a few years, off and on, about learning to make my mom's kimchi (I think this came about when my mom went to Korea by herself for the first time and he was kimchi-less for ONE! WHOLE! WEEK! He almost died).

Since I recently moved back to my parents' house, and I have this whole week off from work (thanks, Sony!), this was the perfect opportunity for an adventure. And what an adventure it was! It took about the whole day, although my mother protests and says it was a half-day, and there were hours of standy time where we just waited for vegetables to do what they were supposed to do.

Anyways, here's the best kimchi ever ... and if you try it and it's no good, then you've opened the container too early. My mom says it needs 3 days. I say it needs about a week, but I (and my dad and sister) like my kimchi "ripe," which is the best English equivalent to saying "신," which really means "fermented."

막김치 (Easy Napa Cabbage Kimchi):

Ingredients (재료):
- Garlic (마늘): 1/2 cup (measure the cloves before grinding); about 2 heads of garlic
- Green onion (파): 8 stalks
- Napa cabbage (통배추): 6 medium-large heads
- Onion (양파): 1 medium-sized yellow onion
- Pickling cucumbers (오이): 3 or 4 medium-sized cucumbers
- Radish (무우): 2 medium-sized
- Red bell pepper or red jalapeño (피망 or 빨간 멕시칸 고추): 1 bell pepper or 3-4 jalapeños
- Red mustard greens (갓): 1 bunch
- Coarse / rock sea salt (굵은 바다소금): about 4 cups or so
- Fine sea salt (꽃소금): about 1/2 cup or so
- Equal / sugar substitute: 1 packet
- Flour (밀가루): 3 tablespoons
- Red chili powder (고추가루): 3 cups
- Fish sauce (액젓): 1/2 cup
- Salted shrimps (새우젓): 5 tablespoons total, used over several steps

Instructions (만드는법):














Take a very large bowl (the water bottle is for reference).














Halve the Napa cabbages, cutting the root ends, about 1/3 of the length of the cabbage.














Use your hands to rip the cabbage in half the rest of the way down the heads of cabbage. If you use a knife to cut all the way through a cabbage, you'll end up with a lot of small shards of cabbage leaf, which isn't ideal.














A ripped-apart halved cabbage head.














Use a knife to make a notch through the root of each cabbage half. Don't cut the cabbage into quarters, and don't rip it apart- this is just so that the salt can penetrate into the cabbage, as the root is the densest part of a cabbage.














In another large-ish bowl (not quite as large as the first picture), pour enough cold water to cover the cabbages once they're inside.














This is sea salt specifically sold for kimchi-making. It's very coarse, very large, but not quite as hard as rock salt. In a pinch, coarse sea salt or rock salt will do.














For size comparison: at the top is regular kosher salt, at the left is fine sea salt, and at the right is coarse kimchi-making sea salt.














About three handfuls of coarse sea salt go into the cold water. Stir, stir, stir until the salt is dissolved. Taste the water. If it tastes like the sea and you make a face, it's fine. If you can drink half a cup before you feel like it might be salty, add more salt!














Dip each cabbage half into the salt water solution- no need to be very thorough here, just trying to get the cabbages wet and introduce them to their new friend, salt.














Don't drain the cabbage halves well- just put them into the large large bowl in a single layer, not overlapping them too much, particularly the root ends.














A layer of cabbage halves- notice that the leafy ends are overlapping, but their roots are all exposed to the air.














Sprinkle coarse sea salt onto the cabbages, concentrating on the roots- they need the most salt in order to wilt them.














Continue adding layers of cabbage halves into the bowl. After completing one layer, sprinkle on salt before beginning the next layer.

Once all the cabbages are in the bowl, salted, pour the salty water over them. We flipped the salt-water bowl over and placed it over the cabbages just so nothing got onto the cabbages, not for any other reason.



















By the time we finished salting the cabbages, it was 2:15. Since the cabbages need to wilt, we had some time on our hands. Depending on the thickness, the freshness, the humidity, the cabbages will take anywhere from 3 hours to 5 hours.

We took the opportunity to watch a little T.V. and have a Christmas pretzel and read a book:














Yum!














While we waited for the cabbages, we began preparing the seasoning mix (slurry).

Bring 4 cups of water to a boil with about 1 tablespoon of fine sea salt.

While the water is bubbling, take three tablespoons of flour (or you can use sweet rice powder, but that's harder to find and flour works just as well) and add about 1/2 cup of water. Stir vigorously until you get a nice paste, well-combined.














Once the salted water comes to a boil, add the flour slurry, stirring the water as you do, to avoid lumps.














Bring the water, flour, and salt to a boil, stirring occasionally. It happens pretty quickly, so keep an eye on it!














Once it's come to a boil (be careful not to let it overflow!) turn off the heat and let it sit to cool.














We cooled our mixture for about 30 minutes, and came back to see that it was a nice 145 degrees (Fahrenheit), not too hot. If the mixture is too hot when you add your chili powder, the resulting kimchi will be an explosion of spiciness. The cooler the flour mixture, the less-spicy the kimchi.














Korean chili powder. This stuff is made by drying red Korean chilis and then grinding them up. We used pretty coarse-ground stuff, not the very finely-milled stuff.



















Fish sauce! It's much easier to find and use than traditional ingredients, and adds much-needed fermented fishiness to the kimchi (sounds gross, but it's necessary). We somehow always buy Thai brands of fish sauce, but there are Korean ones, Chinese ones, Vietnamese ones, etc., etc.














Red bell pepper. We didn't have any jalapeños in the house, and I was certainly not going to go fetch any. My mom likes to freeze red bell peppers and use them in any number of dishes- fried rice, eggs, kimchi, etc. Freezing them also works well because they retain their shape and color a bit better.

My mom says that she actually prefers jalapeños (red only, not green!), but I like red bell peppers because I'm not afraid of the kick. Getting a mouthful of jalapeño is not fun- my mom has a higher tolerance for spiciness than me, I guess.














Salted shrimps! These are tiny, tiny shrimp. Babies. Wee little ones. Please do not think to substitute regular shrimp for these. They have been preserved in fine salt, and have such a salty fishy kick that a couple of these is enough to make your mouth pucker. They're delicious, though, and add a nice depth of flavor to any kimchi.














To the flour mixture, add 2 cups of red chili powder. Stir in until combined.



















We find this little grinder / food processor to be very convenient and use it all the time. If you're using a proper food processor with a large bowl or a blender, you can process everything at once. We processed in steps.

Above is a cup of red chili powder, being processed so that it will be finer and less visible on the leaves of the cabbages. I actually much prefer this, because I don't like to see large flakes of red chili powder.














Add the 1 cup of ground red chili powder into the flour mixture and stir in until everything's combined.



















Process the garlic, onion, 2 tablespoons of salted shrimps, the fish sauce, the cucumbers, and the peppers. We did this in batches, but again, it can be done easily in a large food processor or blender.














Add the processed ingredients. Add the 1 packet of Equal, stir, and then taste the sauce.

If it tastes a little bland, a little not-salty, add some fine sea salt. My mom says that salt is pretty much always added at this point, because it's never salty enough. I think we added about 2 tablespoons.

Taste the sauce again- salty and spicy? Good.



















Two hours have elapsed since our cabbages went through their terrible salty ordeal. Time to check and see if they're done, and flip them!














At this time, the cabbages that are at the bottom of the bowl need to be moved to the top of the bowl. Rather than flipping the cabbages over into the same bowl (that large opaque bowl), we transferred the cabbages into the transparent bowl. Any cabbage at the bottom of the bowl is substantially more wilted than any cabbage at the top of the bowl. In the name of fairness, they must be rotated.














While the cabbages are enduring their second round of salt-water, we prepared the other vegetables- red mustard greens, radish, and green onions. The mustard greens must be detached from one another- separate the roots. Give them a rinse, because they tend to hold dirt.














The mustard greens should be chopped into about 2-inch pieces. Nothing to measure, just a rough chop.














These are the radishes we used. They are not typical radishes- they're an Asian variety that I've never seen in an American grocery store. These have the same coloring as Daikon, but they aren't. Daikon are softer and more tender, contain more water, and won't hold up to this kind of pickling abuse. These radishes are very hard, very dense, and heavy given their size.

You'll need about 1 medium-sized radish per 3 cabbages. The radishes are necessary because they add a sort of freshness to the kimchi.

Peel the radish (I used a vegetable peeler because they have very hard skins and using a knife can be brutal to the wrists).














Cut the radishes in about 1.5-inch chunks.














Cut the chunks in half (so you end up with two half-moon shapes) and then cut the radishes into thin slices. You want the slices to be as consistently-sized as possible. Some people prefer thicker chunks, whereas others like really fine chiffonades. We sometimes use a mandoline to get super-thin slices, but didn't today.














About the thickness we got today.














A cut-up chunk of radish (me! I cut this one!).



















A tub full of prepared radish and red mustard greens. Not so yummy yet...














The green onions should be washed and tough ends should be cut off. My mom cuts the green onion into shards, rather than strips or small pieces. About 8 stalks.



















Another 2 hours or so have passed...














... And the cabbage is ready! It's wilted and producing bubbles in the salty water.














Take a leaf of cabbage and bend it- if it bends willingly in half without breaking, you're in business.














Now is the time to cut the root ends off the cabbages. We take the halves of cabbages and rip them apart into quarters at this point, then chop off the roots, making sure all the cabbage leaves are separated.














Cut the cabbage leaves into chunks, keeping the size consistent. We cut them into 1.5, maybe 2 inches. The size depends on how much kimchi you like in one bite. We tend to eat a lot of kimchi and make the pieces bigger.



















Rinse the cut cabbage pieces in cold water and drain the water off of them. Leave the cabbage pieces to drain while dealing with the radishes, red mustard greens, and green onions.














Place the radishes, red mustard greens, and green onions into a large bowl (we used the enormous opaque bowl from the first photo). Add about 1, 1.5 cups of the chili sauce. Add 2 tablespoons of salted shrimps. Add one tablespoon of fine sea salt.














Mix everything well. My mom's wearing dishwashing gloves because that chili sauce stains! Be pretty gentle when mixing- just get the sauce all over the vegetables.














Hey, look! This is a type of kimchi! Made with radishes as the main player rather than cabbage! It's called "kkakdugi" (깍두기), but is usually made with the radishes cut into a large dice rather than a thin slice. Also, if you're going to make kkakdugi, add a teaspoon of sugar or half a packet of Equal and mix it in.

Kkakdugi is a favorite of children, and it was the only type of kimchi I ate when I was younger. At some point, I stopped liking it and started demanding cabbage kimchi. Oh, the fickleness of youth...














If you're not making kkakdugi, add the drained cabbage pieces to the mixed vegetables.














Add another half-cup of chili sauce and mix gently. You REALLY have to be gentle now, because the wilted cabbage is pretty delicate and can tear. Just try to get everything looking red.

Keep adding chili sauce until everything's looking good. You'll need to taste every now and again to make sure that your kimchi's going to be delicious. It should taste salty, because it will taste less salty as it ferments. Don't taste the radish- it's too difficult to decipher taste from it! Taste the cabbage, which should actually be quite good, as it's pretty well-wilted by now.

You won't use all of the chili sauce for 6 heads of cabbage. The remaining chili sauce can be kept in the fridge and used in other dishes (stews, soups, fish) or left alone until the next time you make kimchi. You'll probably use about 1/3 of the sauce for 6 heads of cabbage, maybe a bit more.














Put the kimchi into air-tight containers. Press down on them so that the pieces are tightly fitted together; it aids in the fermentation.

Pour the remaining sauce from the giant bowl over the kimchi.



















Place pieces of plastic wrap directly over the kimchi, pressing it down. Put lids on the containers and leave them in your kitchen (or wherever, I guess-- we just always leave them in the kitchen). We'll probably open these containers in about 3 days to see if they're ready for consumption. My mom will like the kimchi at that point, but I'll like it about 2 days after she starts eating it.

To see if your kimchi is really fermented, check the bubbles! Fermented kimchi will produce little bubbles that travel from the very bottom of the container all the way to the top. Once the kimchi starts bubbling, it needs to move into the refrigerator.

Delicious! I'll try to remember to post a photo of the kimchi in a few days, when we feel like it's ready to eat.

Happy kimchi-ing...

5 comments:

william December 31, 2008 at 12:27 AM  

you are insane! go to the korean market and buy a jar for $16.99. they're handmade. by SOMEBODY's mom.

okay okay, i prefer to eat my mother's kimchi, too. nice, elaborate post.

~w

jeanny December 31, 2008 at 12:27 PM  

I have no guarantee that somebody's mom can make good kimchi!

Maybe your mom will send you some of her kimchi if you ask nicely? I would love to see a customs official inspecting a package of kimchi...

FatManSeoul December 31, 2008 at 8:00 PM  

Nice job - sounds like your family has a fairly elaborate recipe!

Joan January 3, 2009 at 9:01 AM  

Love this blog! Thanks for the detailed kimchi post. You've inspired me to put up my own kimchi making post, because I'm vegan and nobody else can make kimchi that I can eat. So we're kind of alike that way, just...different. heh

jeanny January 3, 2009 at 1:28 PM  

FatManSeoul- thanks for the inspiration! My mom insists her kimchi is fairly simple ... we'll see when I make it for the first time by myself!

Joan- thank you! Good luck with the vegan kimchi!