Yeah, I’m getting cocky now.
I made kimchi last month, and it was good. We used it up within a few weeks. I wanted to make more. But this time, I wanted to really make kimchi. At the Kimchi Festival, they had done most of the work. All we did was rub the yangnyeom paste in between the leaves.
I have tasted enough kimchi over the years to know what I like. I wanted to make my first ZenKimchi Signature Kimchi.
I mentioned this to Eun Jeong.
“I think I’ll make kimchi this Saturday.”
“No, it’s too much work.”
“I did it at the Kimchi Festival.”
“But you didn’t make the yangnyeom. That’s a lot of work. Lots of chopping.”
“I know how to chop.”
Last weekend, Eun Jeong gave in. She had returned from her mother’s house in Gyeongju and saw that I was already screwing things up. We went to the store together to start getting ingredients, mainly the cabbage and salt.
Coarse ground mineral salt, if you’re curious.
I was a bit too ambitious. They had individual cabbages, but they were already trimmed. I thought you needed untrimmed cabbage so you could use the outer leaves to cover the kimchi. I found out that’s only if you’re going to put it in an earthenware jar and maybe bury it underground. And the only untrimmed cabbage on sale was in three packs.
“Well, if this turns out, I’ll make more. And I can use one of the cabbages to make my grandmother’s Pigs in a Blanket (Hungarian Cabbage Rolls), which freeze well.”
Eun Jeong sighed.
She laid out some newspaper, took one of the cabbages, and lopped off the base.
She then split it in half.
I should also remind you that this is a food journal. This is not somewhere to go for tried and true tested recipes. My Korean Kitchen is the best place to go for recipes. I just record stuff I did, and you can take away from it what you find useful.
As she cut up a cabbage, I filled a plastic tub full of cold water. I had thoroughly washed and disinfected this tub, by the way.
“Joe, what are you doing?”
“I’m making a brine. I’m mixing salt with water like it says in the book.”
My overconfidence in kimchi making partly stemmed from my possession of a book called Good Morning, Kimchi! by Prof. Sook-ja Yoon. She said to soak the cabbage in a 15% salt solution for six to eight hours.
Eun Jeong was on and off the phone with her mother for advice. Her mother said we should salt the cabbage itself with no water. So we did that.
We went out to do some shopping and returned a few hours later.
The salt had leeched some water out but not much. She talked to her mother again. Her mother clarified that we needed to put the salt in between each leaf.
Eun Jeong did that, but she said it would still take a long time for the cabbage to become appropriately wilted. We agreed to go with the brine.
So I put the salted cabbages in the tub and filled it with cold water. Eun Jeong later quartered the cabbages to speed up the process. It was 9 P.M. before was started actually putting together the kimchi itself.
Now, I wanted to make a kimchi with the flavors that I wanted. I know what you’re thinking. What’s the big deal about kimchi?
I can’t expect you to understand unless you’ve had really good kimchi. All the kimchi I’ve had in America is horrible. It’s sour cabbage. The kimchi I’ve had in Korea is complex with many layers of flavors, like a fine wine.
The kimchi I like has a healthy ocean flavor. It’s bright. It has a slight fruitiness with an undercurrent of ginger. And I like it hot.
So, you could almost say this is my mise en place.
I’ve read in many places, including Good Morning, Kimchi!, that you can make kimchi out of almost anything, as long as the main ingredient is brined properly. The only exception I’ve heard of is potatoes. And green beans have to be blanched first.
Yet, I’ve also figured out with cabbage kimchi there are specific categories of components.
Just to review, it needs to be salted either directly or in a brine to make it flexible and to create an environment hostile to hostile microbes. Thoroughly rinse it and drain it before stuffing.
You could say this is the mirepoix of the kimchi. The main ingredients are garlic (one head), ginger (I did a lot), daikon radish, and green onions. You can also add carrots, watercress, spinach (what I did), leeks, eggplant, apples, or Korean pears (another addition of mine). All the veggies should be cut into matchstick sized strips or minced. Like I said, I wanted a fruity ginger flavor, so I put in extra ginger and a Korean pear. If you’ve never had a Korean pear, also known as Asian pear, you are missing out on a sublime fruit.
Generally, two parts gochugaru (Korean chile powder) to one part anchovy juice. Anchovy juice goes by many names, fish sauce, nuoc mam, nam plah… it’s a liquid left over from salting and fermenting little fishies. I know it sounds disgusting, and the smell from the bottle will kill your dog. Yet in the right applications, it brings the fresh flavor of the sea to your table. Just be careful with it. I also stress that there aren’t many substitutions for gochugaru. The closest thing I can think of is real Hungarian paprika. Both have a strong sweet flavor. Gochugaru is a lot hotter. Yet in making a kimchi paste, the coarser grind of gochugaru makes it spongy and super absorbent. So basically, for this one head of cabbage, I used two cups of gochugaru with one cup of anchovy juice in a bowl, covering with a plate–that stuff reeks!
The protein in the kimchi–almost always something from the sea. In my kimchi, I put in two healthy tablespoons of fermented baby shrimp, washed, and some fresh oysters. The oysters make the kimchi taste bright and fresh.
I didn’t use many seasonings in the yangnyeom. When mixing everything together, I tasted it regularly (have a beer handy when tasting–it’s hot). I did adjust the flavor a bit by adding some sugar and a tiny bit of fine salt.
Wearing a plastic glove, I thoroughly mixed everything.
I then took each piece of cabbage, rinsed and drained. Starting with the core pieces, I slathered the sauce in between each leaf. I have no pictures of this because both hands were covered in yangnyeom slop, and Eun Jeong had long since gone to bed. But you can see pictures of that when I made kimchi during the Kimchi Festival.
When each quarter was busting through with stuffing, I rolled it in a ball and put it in a large zipper bag.
The moment of truth occurred the next day at dinner. Eun Jeong nervously tried my kimchi.
The Verdict: Good.
On the plus side, I achieved the balance of flavors I was shooting for. It still was a bit salty, but that has since subsided over the past few days.
On the down side, I should have let the cabbage wilt more and drain more. I also ran short on yangnyeom paste when making it. So I can easily fix that next time.
But aren’t you supposed to let kimchi ferment first?
Well, have you ever had a fresh pickle? Good, huh. Kimchi ferments well, yes, but it is also good fresh. And with the oysters in it–I’m not going to take any chances and let it go for more than a month or so.