I feel ill equipped to talk about kimchi all that authoritatively. When I ask Dan about details almost all of his factoids turn into (enchanting) stories about his mother, from a poor farming family in rural Korea who was on her own since her early teens. Without a real home, the only thing she cherished and carried with her as she moved around was a massive clay kimchi jar.
Pair that with the pieces I've read or seen about kimchi in Lucky Peach or No Reservations and I'm left with a food that I feel the need to revere and perfect before I even think about tossing it into a taco. So, I started with Dan's mom's baechu kimchi, the recipe you'll find below. This is the most standard of the kimchis; the kind that comes to mind when most of us think the word "kimchi." Baechu refers to the napa cabbage and the seasoning on this one is that fiery-sweet, bright red mixture.
But kimchi goes faaaar beyond the baechu variety. First of all, you can turn a variety of foods into kimchi (leafy greens, scallions, daikon)--I got into that a bit more in this piece I wrote for Food52. But then there are the variations of the "marinade" too. Some kimchis are called "water kimchi" for their paler color and the additional water added. Then there's the variations on those marinades that occur regionally. Some like it more briny, others more sweet.
If you want to get started on your kimchi journey, though, this is a trusty first step. Don't feel too trapped by the guide, though. Clearly, variations are OK. These salted shrimp are traditional (this is what I refer to as sae woo jeot), but if you can't find them and/or want your kimchi to be vegetarian, use miso paste instead. Also, make sure you have a full day of prep for this: kimchi takes a few days, so don't expect to have it on the table for dinnertime if you start now! Finally, make sure you have a huge bowl or tub and clean glass jars before starting.
- 1 large napa cabbage
- 2 cups coarse salt
- 1 piece kombu
- 1 apple
- 10 cloves garlic
- 10 Tbsp gochugaru
- 2 Tbsp sae woo jeot
- 1 onion
- 4 scallions
- 1 carrot
- Break apart cabbage leaves from head. In a large bowl or tub, layer in a single layer of cabbage leaves and then sprinkle generously with salt. Repeat until all leaves are layered in and well-salted.
- Cover kombu with warm water in a small bowl. Peel and remove core from apple and then roughly chop fruit. Add to food processor. Peel garlic cloves and add as well. Add in gochugaru and sae woo jeot. Peel and roughly chop onion and add. Finally, add in rehydrated kombu.
- Pulse food processor to combine ingredients.
- Chop scallions into two-inch pieces. Peel and julienne carrot. Combine carrot, scallions and pepper mixture in a porcelain bowl (plastic will stain). Cover with plastic wrap.
- Let salted cabbage leaves and pepper seasoning mixture to rest for at least four hours. Cabbage is ready to use when it's leaked much of its water and firm parts of the leaf are tender. (Imagine your final kimchi--cabbage should be this texture.)
- Once cabbage is ready, thoroughly rinse all leaves and pat dry. Make sure to clean off all salt very well, or your kimchi will be too salty.
- Prepare glass jars for packing, making sure they've been cleaned well and dried. Pull on a pair of clean kitchen gloves so that your skin doesn't stain/smell like garlic for days.
- Returning to your large bowl or bin, add in cabbage and then rub each leaf thoroughly and generously (I work with small handfuls at a time) with pepper mixture. Massage mixture into leaves, getting it into every fold and crevice.
- Once all cabbage is covered in pepper mixture, pack leaves into jar(s). Set jar(s) aside with lids placed on top, but not screwed on so that any air can escape as fermentation begins. Leave at room temperature for 24 hours.
- Screw on lid(s) and transfer kimchi to your refrigerator. It will keep for weeks, even months. Flavor will intensify and change as it continues to ferment. Use kitchen shears to cut leaves into bite-sized pieces prior to serving.