Going into my Korean Cooking course, the lesson I anticipated most was learning how to make kimchi. The first thing I learned was that it wasn’t possible to make kimchi in class. The entire process takes days of preparation followed by more days of fermentation.
In Korea, entire villages would participate in harvesting and preparing kimchi for winter. Cabbage crops would be ready by late fall when it was cool during the day and chilly at nights. Families would rush to pick, brine and pack the vegetables before winter’s onset. Friends and neighbors would pitch in to help and it’d be a community effort to get everything ready. The making and sharing of kimchi is called kimjang and is recognised by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage Item of Humanity for Korea.
If you’re interested, this video offers a fascinating look at kimjang.
Time and kitchen space didn’t allow us to make kimchi in school. Instead, Chef demonstrated the process of preparing the vegetables and making a kimchi ‘porridge’ of gochugaru chili powder, rice slurry and pickled shrimp which would enable fermentation.
I made my first batch of kimchi at home. There were some key lessons from Chef’s class that I’m glad I noted and followed.
The Importance of Gloves
In a Korean grocery, stacked along side 10kg bags of nappa cabbages and 2kg bags of chilis, are boxes and boxes of plastic gloves. In an effort to reduce plastic use, I had thought to not purchase them. I am glad I heeded my teacher’s warning and bought them anyways.
Look at any photo of kimchi making and you’ll see people wearing gloves. There’s good reason for that. Essential to kimchi is a potent porridge of red hot gochugaru chili powder. The porridge needs to coat every leaf of cabbage and given the quantity of cabbage, is best done by hand. The mixture is extremely messy to work with and aside from the sting of raw capsicum, the red color stains.
The Importance of Judgement. Failing that, a Good Scale
Unlike a Korean village, I wanted to make a small batch of kimchi. I had eye-balled my cabbage and radish purchase but over-estimated its weight. My proportion of cabbage to porridge was off, resulting in a fiercely red and densely coated vegetable. As I packed the red mass into jars, I wondered if it would ferment or just solidify into a brick.
One day later, the red mass looked like it was approaching brick status. I added some water, poked it around to distribute the liquid and hoped for the best.
Kimchi is a superfood made by lacto-fermentation, so called because of the good bacteria Lactobacillus, used to convert natural sugars into lactic acid and preserve food nutrients. The process of making kimchi is one of controlling bacterial growth; first by brining, then by fermentation.
The lacto-fermentation process works because of the lucky fact that bacteria that could be harmful to us can’t tolerate much salt, while healthy bacteria (think yogurt) can.
Think of them as the bad guys vs. the good guys. Lacto-fermentation wipes out the bad guys in its first stage, then lets the good guys get to work during stage two.-Leda Meredith. “Lacto-Fermentation: How Does It Work”. The Spruce Eats. December 2022
Chef had warned that fermentation results in overflow and we should loosely cover the jars and place them in containers to catch the percolating liquids. What she hadn’t told us (or I hadn’t noted), was how long it would take.
I anxiously awaited the first signs of fermentation.
On the third day I was relieved to see it.
How did it taste? It was a bit spicy but not too spicy. A little tangy but not sour. A little intense but not too much.
Overall, not bad for a first batch.
Would I do it again? Absolutely!
Besides, I have an entire box of plastic gloves to use up.