I first fell in love with Korean food… on an airplane. I know! I shouldn’t admit that, right? Five years ago, E was asked to go to Seoul for business. I hadn’t traveled a lot then, so I happily suggested tagging along. There was one caveat: the whole trip would have to be done in just six days, including both 24h+ flight itineraries. I think this was the very beginning of my globetrotting career. I figured, if I can do this trip, I can go anywhere.
So I read a guide book, bought homeopathic jet lag pills (they only work if you believe in them), packed a quick suitcase and I was ready to go. Feeling a bit anxious about the long flight, I was happy to learn that we were flying with Korean Air, a company with a very good reputation. Indeed, we enjoyed outstanding service and more legroom in economy class than I had ever seen (still true today). We were treated to the usual blankets and pillows, and also something I thought was genius: stickers to post on your seat saying, “Wake me up/Donʼt wake me up for meals.” Not wanting to pass on any food, even airplane food, I chose to be woken up.
One very busy market and one delicious restaurant in Seoul.
And so my first contact with the Korean way of plating meals came on an airplane tray: one larger bowl accompanied by an array of very small plates, each containing a different colorful pickle or condiment. The main course was bibimbap: a bowl of rice topped with ground beef, a fried egg and julienned vegetables arranged in a colorful rainbow around the sides. It was delicious; in fact, this is still one of my favorite Korean dishes, and I make it regularly at home.
The real surprise came on one small plate: a bite of humble cabbage turned out to be a wonder for the senses: a saturated bright red color, a pungent aroma with hints of garlic and ginger, a crunchy texture and a succession of spicy, sour and sweet tastes. What in the world was this? I grabbed my guidebook and my world opened itself to kimchi.
While visiting Seoul, I quickly discovered that it was served pretty much with every meal. I tasted many varieties, visited the kimchi museum, saw freshly prepared kimchi sold at the market. I indulged in this unique condiment as much as possible over my short stay in Seoul. Back home, I missed it but never considered it an option to make my own. I learned in South Korea that kimchi is fermented and aged in jars for days, even weeks, and simply assumed it would be impossible to reach a comparable taste at home.
A month ago, I read the Momofuku cookbook with recipes by famed David Chang. Chang is known for serving Japanese-style soups, but he’s Korean-American, which means that he has also included many Korean-style pickles and condiments on his menu. I almost jumped for joy when I found a traditional kimchi recipe in the book: it didn’t seem too complicated or risky to make, and it was the very one served at Momofuku. I tracked down the Korean chili powder in an online food store and proudly made my own kimchi, five years after tasting it for the first time in Korea.
A beautiful heart of Napa cabbage.
Napa Cabbage, after resting in salt and water (left) and mixed with the kimchi brine (right).
And the result? The strange (and a bit stinky) smell, the powerful spiciness that almost brings tears to your eyes and the complex layered taste are pretty close to what I remember kimchi should be. The taste improves and intensifies over time, so I can’t wait to see how my kimchi evolves over the next few weeks.
If you feel adventurous and love spicy food, give kimchi a try! One bite and you’ll understand why Koreans have such love (even obsession) over what can seem like an ordinary condiment. It’s great on its own but it can also be added to a variety of dishes like soups, stews, even sandwiches and pizza.
This is my entry to Project Food Blog 2010 Challenge #2. If you liked this post, click here to vote for me. Voting is open from Sept. 27th through Sept. 30th. A big thank you to all who voted for me in the first challenge!
Napa Cabbage Kimchi
Adapted from David Chang’s Momofuku.
The original recipe calls for “jarred salted shrimp” which I wasn’t able to order online in Canada. They accelerate the fermenting process and undoubtedly add flavor. I found many recipes without shrimp so I made my kimchi anyway and it turned out delicious. Do add them if you can find them, you’ll get closer to authenticity.
I substituted ½ cup julienned Asian pear, a fruit that is commonly added to kimchi, for some of the sugar in Chang’s recipe. I found that the delicate pear taste mellows the powerful garlic and ginger flavors a bit.
1 medium head Napa cabbage
2 tablespoons kosher or coarse salt
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
20 garlic cloves, minced
20 slices peeled fresh ginger, minced
½ cup Korean chili powder
¼ cup fish sauce
¼ cup Japanese soy sauce
¼ cup water
2 teaspoons jarred salted shrimp (optional)
½ cup 1-inch pieces green onions (green and white parts)
½ cup julienned carrots
½ cup julienned Asian pear
Cut the cabbage lengthwise in half, then cut the halves crosswise into 1-inch-wide pieces. Toss the cabbage with the salt and 2 tablespoons of the sugar in a bowl. Let sit overnight in the refrigerator.
Combine the garlic, ginger, chile powder, fish sauce, soy sauce, water, shrimp (if using), and remaining ¼ cup sugar in a large bowl. Stir in the green onions, carrots and pear.
Drain the cabbage (don’t rinse it) and add it to the brine. Mix everything thoroughly using your fingers if necessary to make sure each and every single cabbage piece is coated with the brine. Put your kimchi in a jar (fits tightly in a half-gallon Mason jar) and refrigerate. The kimchi will be tasty after 24 hours, but it will be better in a week and at its prime in 2 weeks, when it takes on a prickly mouthfeel, like the feeling of letting the bubbles in a soft drink pop on your tongue. It will still be good for another couple weeks after that, though it will grow incrementally stronger and, according to Chang, “funkier.”