“I think you have to stop talking about fermentation. It’s not sexy.”
Michel Troisgros, 3 starred Michelin chef, in response to a Kim-chi demonstration
Fermentation. It is not a sexy word. It certainly doesn’t have the intellectual snobbery of molecular gastronomy, the Gallic charm of sous vide, or closer-to-nature-closer-to-god sanctimony of raw food. But without fermentation, most of the world’s greatest foods would not be around. Fromage? Non. Vin? Je crois que non! Bier? Nein. Miso? Nashi. Injera? Ie. You get the idea. Fermentation, maybe not on a first date, but a hell yeah in the kitchen.
What is fermentation? Fermentation is the process of transforming carbohydrates (starch, sugar, etc.) into alcohol and carbon dioxide or organic acids (lactic acid, acetic acid, etc) through yeast, bacteria or a combination of the two. Below is a very simplified diagram of how the process works for the production of food products. If you aren’t into the science, don’t worry. It’s not important for appreciating the process. But for food nerds, it might be interesting.
One food that is absolutely dependent upon fermentation is the pickle. Want a half-sour with that pastrami? You better thank fermentation for that. Aam ka mitha achar with your alu-chole? Fermentation is your friend. That incredible kim-chi quesadilla from the Kogi food truck in Los Angeles? You need kim-chi – and that needs, you guessed it, fermentation.
I, unfortunately, will not be able to go back to LA anytime soon to have that quesadilla, but I do know how to make kim-chi. In the spirit of all things fermented, today’s recipe is my mother’s recipe for kim-chi. Anyone with any familiarity with kim-chi knows that there are hundreds of different variations, ranging from the vegetable used to local preferences, but the recipe below is a basic, no-frills recipe that is fairly easy for a kim-chi novice to make. Most of the ingredients are readily available at Korean or Asian grocery stores these days (my mother had to import the ingredients from Korea 30 years ago). The process does take some time, but with a food processor, most of the carpal tunnel syndrome aspects making kim-chi have been rendered obsolete. Go make some kim-chi - so you don’t have to be jonesing for that kim-chi quesadilla at 2 AM.
Make sure you have pickling jars to store your kim-chi, if you don’t intend to eat it right away (and you probably won’t). This recipe makes about 1 gallon, but feel free to store it in any combination of jars that suits your needs. And because you don’t want your Gruyere smelling/tasting of kim-chi, I recommend making it when you have an outside storage place (garage, cellar, etc.) that is cold, but not freezing (Koreans now have separate refrigerators just for storing kim-chi). Placing kim-chi in a cold storage area also retards the fermentation process, thus prolonging your kim-chi eating pleasure.
2 heads of Napa Cabbage
1 large Korean radish (called moo in Korean) or 4 bunches of regular radishes, cut into thin slices (1 in. long)
Salt, preferably sea salt or kosher.
1 bunch of scallions
2 inch knob of ginger, peeled
1 head of garlic, peeled
1-2 tbs. of sugar (to taste)
2-3 tbs. of fish sauce (to taste)
2-3 tbs. or more Korean chili powder (Gochutgaru)
1. Wash and cut cabbage into uniform lengths, about 1 1/4 in.
2. In a large bowl, soak cabbage in a saline solution of salt and 8 c. of water and 1/2 c. of salt for about 2 hours, tossing the cabbage about every half hour.
3. About 1 1/12 hours into the cabbage soaking, in a separate bowl, toss the radish with 1 1/2 tsp of salt. Set aside.
4. While the cabbage and radish are soaking, take scallions (both green and white parts), ginger, garlic, sugar, fish sauce and chili powder in a food processor and process into a paste.
5. After 2 hours, rinse JUST the cabbage. Mix cabbage with radish (with any accumulated radish juice), and chili mixture. Taste, and adjust seasonings to taste.
6. Pack firmly into jars, making sure that there is about an inch of head space.
7. If you would like to eat it immediately, place jar at room temperature for about 1-2 days. You will know it is fermenting if you see little bubbles inside the jar (that’s carbon dioxide). If you don’t intend on eating immediately, store jar(s) in cool space.
Note: If you cannot find the Korean chili powder (Gochutgaru), you can substitute any hot dried chili flakes and grind them in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle.