The first question everyone in Korea asks of a Westerner is “Where are you from?” The second question is almost always “Do you like kimchi?” Kimchi is as integral to Korean culture and identity as freedom is to Americans, as wine is to the French, and as pasta is to the Italians. Kimchi is served as a side dish with everything from rice to steak. In the minds of some Korean people kimchi also cures everything including cancer. Yes, my dear readers, spicy fermented cabbage is capable of miracles.
Fermented food is not on the list of favorites for a lot of people. In fact, I’ve heard it said time and time again from fellow expats that after years of living in Korea they still cannot stand the smell of kimchi. Some do not like the texture. I, however, love all of it. I like the spiciness and the slightly crunchy yet soft texture of the cabbage. I like the tartness, the sweetness that comes after, and I love the smell. What can I say, I’m Russian; we like stinky pickled vegetables.
There is one problem. Even though the naive North American might believe that kimchi is a fully vegetarian dish, it is not. Kimchi is always made with fish sauce and sometimes, the friendly crooked kimchi maker will put some oysters into the mix to make the kimchi extra special. Not to mention all the garlic that goes into it. Ufffffff, that is one stinky lunch.
The only time I can get garlic-free vegan kimchi is when I go to a monk restaurant which isn’t often. Thanks to my friend who used to work at one of these restaurants I learned how to make my own garlic-free, vegan kimchi. It takes a little bit of time and work but it is all worth it because you can flavor the kimchi any way you like.
1 big Chinese cabbage
1 c coarse sea salt
2 inch piece of ginger (if you want garlic, add as much garlic as you want along with the ginger)
1 c Korean spicy pepper flakes (Gochu karu, 고추가루)
1 c Korean sticky rice (Jjapsal, 찹쌀)
1 inch piece of dashi seaweed (Dashima, 다시마)
1 big piece of fruit (The recipe asks for an Asian pear but I couldn’t get any this time. You can use one apple, 3-4 plums, some pineapple, or persimmons. This time I used 3 nectarines. )
1/4 c soya sauce
1. Cut the cabbage in half. Wash.
2. Salt the cabbage carefully in between each leaf. Leave it in a large container for a few hours. This will break down the cell walls in the cabbage, release the water from the cells, and significantly reduce the volume.
3. While the cabbage is salting, mix the rice with enough water to cover. Drop the seaweed into the pot and cook the rice for about 30 minutes, until is is very soft and mushy. It will be used to make the paste. Cool the rice.
4. When the rice is cool add it to the food processor along with he fruit and the spicy pepper flakes. Mix and taste. If it isn’t salty enough, add some soya sauce. Do not add all the soya sauce at the same time but do remember that the mixture should taste very salty.
5. Rinse the cabbage to get rid of salt.
6. Put on some plastic gloves and start putting the sauce in between each leaf of the cabbage. That’s right, between each leaf. It takes a while but it
‘ll be sooo goood!
7. When all the sauce is gone and the cabbage is covered in sauce, place the cabbage in an air tight container. Make sure the container is big enough to fit the cabbage but small enough that there is no extra space available after. Alternatively you can use a simple plastic bag. You see, we are making fermented cabbage. For fermentation to take place there needs to be zero oxygen available. This is why the container has to be exactly the right size. If your container is too big the cabbage will simply rot.
8. When all the cabbage and the sauce is packed into your container, leave it be for a few days at room temperature in a dark place. I store mine under my kitchen counter. Check it in a few days, taste the cabbage. Is it salty enough? If not, just sprinkle it with salt. I am sure that if any Koreans are reading this they would be appalled but it’s worked for me many times. The longer you leave the cabbage fermenting, the more sour it will be. I like mine the most at the week and a half mark. After the kimchi has reached your preferred state of fermentation, transfer the container to the fridge to stop the fermentation process.
Have you tried grilled kimchi? It is pretty much the best grill food I can think of. The heat dries it and deepens the flavors. It’s a must for our summer barbeques on the beach.
Let’s talk about fermentation.
Originally people started fermenting food to preserve it. You know, eating rotten cabbage didn’t work out so well for all the poor folks in the Middle ages. However, some time later people figured out that there are actual health benefits to eating fermented foods. Here’s a list of just a few.
-This one will make all the gluten intolerant folks happy. Fermentation greatly reduces the amount of gluten present in the food. So if you just cannot live without bread but cannot stand gluten chose a sourdough bread.
-Fermentation breaks down lactose in the dairy. Which means that not only is it easier on digestion but the carb content is reduced as well! Eat up that yoghurt non-vegans!
-Fermented foods restore the healthy good-for-us probiotics in our digestive system.
There are many more benefits to eating fermented foods. It is always better to make your own fermented food because mass-produced foods, such as sauerkraut, aren’t given the time to ferment properly and develop all the goodness people look for in fermented foods. They are made quickly in order to move the product.
You probably already enjoy a lot of fermented foods without even knowing it. If you haven’t tried kimchi, give it a go. I think you’d love it!
I wish you digestive health,