The preservation of food did not begin with refrigerators. Sunlight and salt were the most popular natural methods used, primarily for desiccation of ingestible items. Water brings life for organisms, including those that may be designed to render putrid something which might have earlier been a satisfying meal.
Researchers at large have identified what we call lactobacilli, bacteria that produce lactic acid, present just about everywhere living organisms may be found. With some intention, we can use these bacteria as we see fit. Our ancestors saw fit to keep food digestible for longer and longer periods, well before electric refrigeration. As a bonus, we now know that these beneficial bacteria produce beneficial enzymes, thus aiding our digestive flora. Evidence exists to show that lactobacilli support our immune systems which, as I’ve posted previously, is rooted in our gut.
Sauerkraut, pickled cucumbers, and preserved fruits are commonly recognized at home and abroad. In my own Korean culture, fermented foods are a staple, left over from generations of traditional pickling of our vegetables for longevity and health benefits. Below is an abbreviated recipe for my favorite iteration of lacto-fermented vegetables: kim-chee. All my life, the Korean table was never lacking a dish or two of this vegetable preparation. At it’s simplest foundation, kim-chee is made by salting a head of cabbage and then leaving it stand for several days in an earthen vessel, sometimes buried in order to maintain a consistent cool temperature to extend it’s edibleness. Seeing how one might become bored of salty wilty cabbage, Eastern epicureans long-since departed found other ingredients to add to the cabbage, serving up a bit of finesse with each dish. The addition of dried hot peppers was probably a Eureka! moment for my ancestors and, thus, very few kim-chee recipes omit this ingredient.
Lest you believe all kim-chee to be the same (as does my husband), I should inform you that there exist myriad variations of kim-chee “dressings”. Yes, the fundamentals must be present, but then a pinch of this and a pint of that leads to subtlety of palate-pleasing expression. In some parts of Korea, a purely vegetable preparation is preferred; in other parts, salt-cured shrimps or fish is added for a specific flavor. In actual fact, no matter what speciality a Korean restaurant may be known for, they are judged significantly on their kim-chee. As polite as we may be on the outside, a plate of bland restaurant kim-chee has caused better Korean noses than mine to curl up and never return. You don’t want to get this one wrong.
One must take into account that the final preparation won’t really be ready for consumption until after at least three days. More than a few people have made the mistake of downloading a recipe on the rush-hour subway with the idea of impressing dinner guests later in the evening. I still laugh when I think of it…in a kind-hearted way, of course. A very fresh plate of kim-chee is quite acceptable, having just been made, like a crisp salad. Digging into it too soon, prior to real fermentation, and you get what tastes like yesterday’s salad. I find this has no appeal. Once you pass the 3-day mark, you can tell fermentation is well under way, the longer you let it set, the more pungent it becomes. This is what we come to expect from a serving of kim-chee.
Bora’s Mild Kim-Chee Recipe for the Western Epicure
Serves a small household for a week or two
1-2 heads of Napa cabbage, depending on size
1/4 – 1/2 cup good quality sea salt (or kosher) per cabbage head
3 Tbsp dried hot pepper flakes
1-2 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
1-3 green onion, chopped or minced
2-3 medium carrots, julienned
1 Tbsp of fresh ginger, grated
1/2 tsp fish sauce (optional)
3/4 tsp sugar to assist fermentation
Preparation of cabbage
Clean and rinse all fresh ingredients
Remove tough outer leaves of cabbage if necessary, then chop cabbage into bite-sized pieces.
Rinse the cabbage pieces fully in a sink of cool water.
Remove and strain w/ collander
Place cabbage in a non-reactive bowl, add 1/4 cup of salt and mix to cover all leaves with salt
Let cabbage sit in the bowl, turning cabbage 2-3 times at 30 minutes intervals
Rinse cabbage 2-3 times
Preparation of filling
In a non-reactive bowl, combine pepper flakes, minced garlic, green onion, carrot slices, grated ginger and sugar. If you’re not using fish sauce, add as much as another 1/4 cup of salt. Then mix thoroughly.
Add the above mixture to the rinsed cabbage and mix thoroughly to cover all leaves.
Pack covered cabbage into airtight plastic container or sterilized glass container; a large Mason or Ball jar works well.
Store in the refrigerator. If you want to accelerate the fermentation process, let the filled and sealed container remain at room temperature for 24-48 hours before refrigerating.
The kim-chee keeps in the refrigerator for weeks, developing more complex sour flavors. Typically, once it becomes too mushy and sour, we add it to certain soups for additional flavoring.
P.S. Don’t be surprised at the “fragrance” of the preparation after a few days. When you open the container, it will certainly announce itself to your nostrils, and to the rest of the house. Such is the glory of Korean kim-chee! Enjoy!
*By the way, the picture above is a fresh jar of kim-chee; compare with the first image further up the page. That’s the same jar, unopened, after three days, the reduction due to fermentation is clearly evident. — B. R.
**Gateway to Korea’s YouTube channel has an excellent video for a greater appreciation of the kim-chee process; link below.