I love Korean food. I only know of two places to get it in Albuquerque: Korean BBQ House and Soo Bak Foods, the local Korean food truck. Both are very tasty. But of course, if I love a food I need to be able to make it myself. And if you want to make Korean food at home, you need to be able to make kimchi.
The good news is that, though it takes some time, making kimchi is not at all difficult. And homemade kimchi tastes amazing.
You definitely need to plan ahead to make this. The first step is wilting the cabbage with salt and sugar, which is best done overnight. Then, the next day, mix the cabbage with the spice mixture. You can eat it right away, but it’s better if you can wait a couple of days. The recipe I use is a slight tweak of David Chang’s from the Momofuku cookbook. (He mentioned that his mother used less salt and sugar, and I thought that sounded better, and indeed I liked preferred it when I tried decreasing those amounts.) He likes it best after two weeks, when, ideally, it starts to develop a little effervescence from the fermentation.
Kimchi is served as a condiment or side dish with any traditional Korean meal (most wonderfully as part of a selection of small dishes called “banchan”), but it has other uses as well. It can serve as a snack if you roll that way – Arne does, but it’s a little pungent for me by itself. It’s terrific as a topping for a simple bowl of rice (I hear that’s a traditional Korean breakfast). Even better, chop up about a quarter cup of kimchi and add it to a couple of cups of fried rice as you’re cooking it for the best fried rice you’ll ever eat. If you can handle a fair amount of salt, a little bacon elevates kimchi fried rice to a truly out-of-this-world treat.
In fact, kimchi likes cured pork products of all kinds. This Independence Day, we celebrated with Nathan’s hot dogs topped with kimchi and sriracha mayonnaise. Arne said they were the best hot dogs he’d ever tasted.
Feel free to play with the proportions of ginger and garlic. When making a recent batch of kimchi, I discovered I only had seven garlic cloves. I increased the ginger slightly and discovered that I really liked it that way; the finished kimchi had a cleaner, lighter flavor. Of course, the regular way – with a serious garlic punch – is incredible.
The most important ingredient here, after the cabbage and salt, is the Korean chile powder. Ground more coarsely than regular chile powder, but more finely than crushed red pepper flakes, it has a magnificent toasty richness and lots of red chile flavor with – at least in the brands I’ve found – surprisingly little heat. Unless you’re very sensitive to spiciness, don’t worry that the half-cup called for will blow your head off. In fact, I often add some crushed red pepper flakes to increase the heat, and I never order higher than medium heat at an Indian or Thai restaurant.
Dried shrimp, scallion, and carrot are all listed in the recipe, but all are optional. The batch pictured here has the shrimp, but no onion or carrot. This is another place you can play around; try a little finely sliced red onion instead of the scallion, or toss in some other vegetables, like sliced radish or green beans. Korean cooks make kimchi out of all kinds of things – my favorite is cucumber – and you should feel free to as well!
Homemade Napa Cabbage Kimchi
To wilt the cabbage:
1 small to medium head Napa cabbage
1.5 tablespoons coarse or kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar
For the spice mixture:
1/3 cup sugar
10 to 20 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
A three-inch length of fresh ginger, peeled if desired and minced
1/2 cup Korean chile powder (kochukaru)
1/4 cup fish sauce
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon or more crushed red pepper flakes, optional – use if you want it hot!
1 tablespoon finely chopped dried shrimp, optional
1/2 cup scallions cut in 1-inch lengths, optional
1/2 cup julienned carrots, optional
Discard any discolored or badly wilted outer leaves from the cabbage. Rinse, then slice in half. Cut into approximately 1-inch squares. Toss the cabbage with the salt and sugar, then cover and refrigerate at least four hours or, preferably, overnight. (Actually, if you’re salting it for less than six hours, you can leave it on the counter.)
When the cabbage is thoroughly wilted, put it into a colander and let drain while you mix the sauce. In a large bowl, stir together the sugar, garlic, ginger, kochukaru, fish sauce, soy sauce, and red chile flakes or dried shrimp (if using). If the sauce is very thick and sludgy, add water a few tablespoons at a time until it is more or less the consistency of heavy cream. Toss in the cabbage and mix thoroughly, then stir in the scallion and carrot, if using.
Place in an airtight container that isn’t prone to picking up odors (not plastic!) and refrigerate. You can start eating it whenever you want. It will keep getting richer and funkier with age. David Chang likes his best after two weeks. It will keep for a couple of months, but after four to six weeks you may want to cook with it instead of eating it straight… it all depends on your taste buds!