Monday 20 October 2014

Kim chee at home

Originally published in the Kildare Nationalist newspaper.

Few peoples on Earth are as devoted to their national dishes as Koreans are to kim chee. Few Irish have had this amazing dish, but few things have a richer or more powerful flavour, and it can be made easily at home with everyday ingredients. I don't feel compelled to stick reverently to their ingredients, and I've been able to adapt it to whatever is ready in the garden at the moment.

Kim chee can be best described as a kind of Asian sauerkraut, a spicy pickled cabbage with ginger, garlic and other spices. It’s made with the same process that creates dill pickles – the technical term is lacto-fermentation – using a salty brine to preserve the food and give it a tangy bite. It can keep for as long as a few months, but can be ready in as little as a week.

To make kim chee, you will need:

• A kilo of cabbage from your garden – Chinese cabbage or bok choi is the traditional choice for Koreans, but regular Irish cabbage will do just fine, or even leaves from other brassicas.
• 60 millilitres of salt.
• 15 millilitres of grated garlic – if you don’t have a garlic press or hand grater, just run it through the smallest holes of the cheese grater.
• Five millilitres of grated ginger
• 15 millilitres of chopped hot pepper
• 100 grams or so of chopped radishes
• 100 grams of scallions or chives

To start, chop the cabbage into quarters, remove the cores, and slice into strips about five centimetres wide. Mix the cabbage and the salt in a large bowl, and with your hands massage the salt into the cabbage for a few minutes. Some people like to use gloves for handling the salt again, especially if you have sensitive skin. Then find a plate smaller than the top of the bowl, and place it on the cabbage to keep it in the salt. You might want to put some jars on top – I used pickle jars evenly around the edges – to weigh it down. Leave it there for about two hours.

At the end of that time, the cabbage will be soft and sitting in a brine of its own juice and some salt. Take the cabbage out and drain in a colander, and clean the bowl to use again. Then you make the kim chee paste, mixing the grated garlic, grated ginger, and chopped pepper together in a bowl. Some recipes, I find, call for using flour to thicken the paste -- I've tried it with and without, and haven't found it to make much difference.

Some people put in a bit of sugar at this point, some a bit of soy sauce, some a bit of seafood flavour like fish sauce or oyster sauce. Chop up the radishes and scallions and add them to the mix.

Finally, mix the vegetables and paste with the cabbage, and massage them together as you did with the salt. There are hot peppers in there, so some people like to crack out the gloves again at this part. Pack the cabbage into a clean glass jar – I used a pickle jar – pressing down until the brine rises to just barely cover everything.

Leave a bit of space at the top, and seal the lid – not too tightly, though, in case gas needs to escape. Check every day or two to loosen the lid just a crack, to make sure it’s not going to explode, and then when the gas has escaped tighten it a little again. Let the mix stand for at least a week, and give it a try.

This recipe uses only minimal spice compared to the Korean original, but if it’s still too much, use less next time. The best thing about this recipe is that, when people here grow cabbages, they tend to use the head only and throw the outer leaves away – they are tough and would not be good to chew. Kim chee, though, can be made from some outer leaves of cabbages, and so less goes to waste.


Anubis Bard said...

Kim Chi is a wonderful thing. My own version of this healthful, spicy fermented dish - cabbage, salt, garlic, carrots, turnips if I have any, and hot peppers. I knead the salt into the cabbage and just toss in the other ingredients; put it all in a crock in the cellar for 5 or 6 weeks, held under the brine with a glass jar, covered with a cloth, then pack it into jars and put it in the fridge. I had some this evening for livening up some delicious flounder filets. It's an experiment I'd recommend to anyone.

Brian Kaller said...


I'm very glad I was introduced to it. Have you tried it with various other kinds of vegetables? I thought I'd try mixing in various roots that are coming in, although past a certain point it might not qualify as kim chee anymore. :-)

Also, I heard from Mr. Greer about your ten-week journey across America, and what you found. I'd be interested to read more -- have you written anything about it?

Anubis Bard said...

Carrots and turnips (cut like an American french fry) are excellent - crunchy and tangy. Parsnips didn't really hold up. I tried a bit of radish, but didn't notice much effect. I haven't had the nerve to try beets, though if I were doing small batches in jars rather than a whole crock, I'd try that. I love pickled beets, but I'm not sure purple kim chi is quite legit. (My wife is a borscht fan, but otherwise leery of beets.) I also prefer the sturdy cabbages rather than the savoy that the purists recommend.