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Flash in the Pan

Ancient Korean secret



Wandering through a shadowed wood, I relished the beauty of nature’s intrinsic feng shui at work all around me. But more acutely did I sense that my lunch of reheated leftover hippy burritos was not in complete harmony with my internal organs.

Then, from behind a honey locust stepped a bearded old soul who introduced himself as Kim Chi. His eyes were jolly, even as he empathized with me and the intestinal discomfort of which I complained. He handed me a quart jar full of sliced vegetables in a red brine.

“Fermented oriental cabbage,” he beamed. “Good for tummy. Fermentation make lactic acid environment—much like in yogurt. Help growth of lactic bacteria in your belly.”

I sat up in bed. The only thing real about my dream, so I thought, was the indigestion that woke me up. But the idea of reinforcing my guts with some friendly bacteria sent me wandering the aisles of the Big Food Store in search of lactic bacteria supplements. Then I decided, “Wait, I’ll skip the pill form and go get me some real yogurt.” And off I went toward the cooler, where something unexpected caught my eye. It was a jar of sliced vegetables in a red brine, and the jar had a label that said “kim chi.” I took home my jar and opened it. As the label had warned, the fermentation inside had built up serious pressure, which I aimed into the sink. It had that almost-sweet fermented taste of sauerkraut, but tasted nothing like sauerkraut. It was spicy with chili pepper, ginger and garlic. At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, but I kept taking bites as I wondered. Eventually I had to conclude that this altogether new taste experience tasted really good.

According to legend, kim chi was discovered by a poor farmer who cleaned his meager and wilted cabbage crop in the ocean. The salt water set the cabbage fermenting, which turned out to be an effective means of preserving it. Soon, other things were added to the mix, such as garlic, ginger, chili pepper, radishes, other vegetables, and various fish products. Back in the day, the kim chi was kept buried in clay pots to keep it cool. Nowadays, the fridge is recommended, and there’s a plethora of different recipes. (If you want to see for yourself, plug “kim chi recipe” or “kimchi recipe” into an Internet search engine.) But salting the cabbage remains at the core of kim chi. The take-home message for making it yourself is to experiment with different variations and see what you like. The only place where you need to be pretty anal is with the salt concentrations. Here is what I like to do:

For about a quart of kim chi, start out with three pounds of Chinese or napa cabbage—it’s cheap and in season this time of year. Discard the outer leaves, cut off the base and slice the remainder crosswise into one-inch strips. Submerge this cabbage in a half-gallon of water into which half a cup of salt has been dissolved. Let it sit this way for at least eight hours, with a weighted plate on top so it stays submerged. You can also skip the cabbage and do the same thing with sliced turnip or cucumber—or add these to cabbage-based kim chi.

Meanwhile, prepare the spice mixture. With a mortar and pestle, mash the cloves of a big head of garlic with about half as much ginger. Mash in two tablespoons of ground chili pepper (serious hotheads can double this, wimps can substitute paprika) and two teaspoons of sugar. If you want to add some seafood essence, try a teaspoon of shrimp or anchovy paste. Rinse the salted cabbage, drain and stir in the spice mixture with your hands. At this point, mix in some chopped green onions, and I highly recommend some thin-sliced radish, too. And you can play around with carrots, spinach, fiddlehead ferns—whatever is in season. Put it in a jar, but don’t overstuff it (unless you want a kim chi bomb), and put the cap on. You can open it every day or so to let the pressure release. Let it sit in the fridge for three days.

Now you are ready to enjoy the pleasures of kim chi—oh let me count the ways. I’ll never forget the meal called bibimbap I got on a Korea Airlines flight: a bowl of rice with kim chi, steamed spinach, shitake mushrooms and fried tofu neatly arranged on top. You squirt on some chili sauce, mix it all up and…wow. If you want to try bibimbap, go to Nara, the new Korean restaurant on North Reserve, and order it.

It’s also good to start your stir-fry with kim chi. Heat up a pan, add some oil (or chopped bacon for two thumbs up!). Then add a dollop of kim chi, followed by whatever else you want to add. Or, make your food and eat some kim chi on the side. If you come up with any good techniques, let me know.

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