January 4th, 2013 by Jihye Chang
Kimchi -or Kimchee- is probably a synonym for Korean food to a lot of people. It was once featured on Saveur magazine , and recently New York’s Danji restaurant made “kimchi chorizo paella” famous.
Many people in America seem to have a bad first encounter with kimchi. When not made well or not “matured” well, kimchi could be extremely off-putting with strange and stinky smell. (Although I think it is slightly more tolerable than really strong blue cheese or stinky tofu). A lot of Korean people who live abroad has a kind of “love-hate” relationship with kimchi. You may be able to live without it, but you crave it so much. You want to make it, Whenever one’s mom comes over or ships a package, some disaster happens with shipping a tub of homemade kimchi. Once I had a box delivered in a big plastic bag, swimming in bright red juice that came out from the box containing my mom’s kimchi. I was so grateful that the post office delivered it to me, not throwing it away!
Fundamentally Kimchi is a way of preserving vegetables for a long time. There are so many kinds of kimchi in Korea as you can make it with any kind of vegetable. The most frequently eaten kind is made with Napa cabbage, “Paechu” or “Baechu”. Summer version and the easy version of this Paechu kimchi is made with cut-up and salted Napa cabbage. But the most important kind is the one that is made with whole head of cabbage, stuffed with thinly sliced radish seasoned with garlic, green onion, ginger, red pepper powder, fish sauce, fermented shrimp and so on. Below is a photo of my mom’s kimchi, winter 2012 edition, in a big container and thick plastic bag. It doesn’t look much appetizing, but it is so yummy! It even smells nice.
During late November and early December, almost every household in Korea is faced with making a large amount of Paechu kimchi for the winter. It’s usually a cooperative effort – you help your neighbors’ kimchi making and you will get their help when it’s your turn. I used to love helping my mom and eating the raw kimchi with extra stuffing, although it sometimes made me have a tummy ache in the evening.
Next in line is kkagdugi, which is made with Korean radish (a little bit plumper than the Japanese daikon) cut into small dices.
When you eat Sullung-tang or Seolong-tang (Korean style clear bone and meat soup), you get radish kimchi that’s cut up a little bigger as well as some Napa cabbage kimchi. (See photo below)
My favorite kimchi is “Chonggak kimchi,” which is made with radish that is very much smaller than the regular kind. It is so good with some bone soup or beef soup, or just good plain rice!
Different regions in Korea have different styles of kimchi making. Also every household has slightly different recipes and secret ways for making good kimchi. Some prefer putting sweet rice “glue” (thick porridge kind of thing) in their kimchi, some like to put fresh shrimp and squid in the stuffing, others like their kimchi simple and not too fussy, and so on. Usually the southern part of Korea called “Cholla” area uses a lot more fish sauce and seafood in their kimchi, and people in Seoul make moderate amount of seasonings and stuffing items.
Now, making kimchi at home is a long and labor intensive procedure. When one’s short on mom’s kimchi supply, one must rely on the store bought kind. My favorite that’s available in the U.S.A. is “Chongga Pogi Kimchi” (종가집 포기김치). This is not the cut-up kind, but the whole head of cabbage in a vacuum sealed package or a plastic tub. You can purchase it in any H-Mart off/online.
For cut-up kimchi, Ochonnyon (오천년) brand in a jar is OK, and more readily available in smaller towns’ Korean markets. However this brand’s kimchi feels a bit more artificially flavored (=too much MSG and sugar) to my taste.
I have introduced kimchi zigae (soup) with canned tuna before. I will post recipes for kimchi fried rice and kimchi pancake soon. Those are the bests!
* For those who are interested in knowing more about kimchi: visit Pulmuwon’s Kimchi Museum online. http://www.kimchimuseum.or.kr/