Love Wholesome contributor Jo-ann Huang tries her hand at making the national side dish of Korea.
With a complex blend of spice, tang and sweetness, and an unforgettable bright red hue, kimchi has become Korea’s biggest cultural export along with K-pop.
And while many people around the world have probably only discovered kimchi in recent decades, its origins date back more than 2,000 years to the Three Kingdoms era.
Every Korean family has its own kimchi recipe, refined through several generations, and everyone naturally claims that their mother’s kimchi is the best.
While there are many variations, the dish generally comprises fermented napa cabbage seasoned with Korean chili pepper flakes, which give kimchi its trademark colour.
Koreans consume copious amounts of kimchi – they eat it with pretty much everything. Kimchi chigae (kimchi stew), kimchi pancake, kimchi pork dumplings and kimchi fried rice are just some of the many ways in which it’s used.
You can even add it to non-Korean dishes, such as an omelette, mayonnaise potato salad and carbonara pasta.
In Singapore, kimchi is sold in supermarkets and Korean restaurants. It’s typically priced at around SGD$8 for 400 grams, which means your kimchi bill can really add up if you are eating it regularly. Having bought it from stores for a while now, I’ve also found that the store varieties are either too sweet or too salty.
So recently I decided to attempt making it myself. After a few hours of preparation and a few days of fermentation, I had a large batch of kimchi, with just the right taste and flavour notes – and at a fraction of the cost.
Before we get started, let’s talk health. Like many fermented foods, kimchi delivers a range of benefits for your body. Koreans live longer than their non-Korean counterparts, and scientists think it’s due (at least in part) to kimchi’s antioxidant and anti-aging properties, such as vitamin C and vitamin A. It’s also rich in lactobacilli bacteria, which boosts gut health.
Cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage have many health benefits of their own. They’re rich in fibre and phytonutrients, which are compounds that help to fight cancer.
The downsides to kimchi are its high sodium content, which can worsen ailments such as high blood pressure. If this is an issue for you, then you had better to go easy on the kimchi.
Easy kimchi recipe
The traditional way to make kimchi involves taking a whole brined cabbage and applying a chili pepper mix between the leaves. This can be very time consuming, so I instead recommend cutting the cabbage into smaller chunks before putting the chilli on. To me, the taste is essentially the same, but the preparation time is 30 minutes compared to three hours or more.
Fermentation can take three days to months – the longer you leave it, the richer the taste will be. Kimchi that has been left to ferment for a long time has an intense taste, lending itself to stocks, stews and sauces.
Instead of using table salt, use sea salt. Its coarseness means it’s harder to dissolve than fine table salt, and this minimises over-salting. (Take it from me, a salty kimchi is not very tasty.)
Ingredients such as Korean red pepper flakes (known as gochugaru), fermented shrimp and fish sauce can be found in Korean supermarkets. Chain supermarkets stock napa cabbage (also called wong bok), sea salt, Korean radish and so on. Most Korean supermarkets also have their own basic recipes and their staff will happily guide you to find the right ingredients.
Here is a basic recipe given to me by a Korean supermarket that I have tweaked slightly. Once you’ve tried it, you’ll be able to refine it to your taste for subsequent batches.
- One whole napa cabbage (wong bok), weighing around 1.5kg, sliced into 2-inch-wide pieces
- Half a Korean radish or daikon, sliced into matchstick-sized pieces
- Two tablespoons of glutinous sweet rice flour
- Two tablespoons of Korean fish sauce
- 100 grams of Korean chili pepper flakes (gochugaru)
- Four cloves of garlic, sliced thinly
- One bunch of spring onions (optional)
- One large carrot, sliced into matchsticks
- One tablespoon of sesame seeds (optional)
- One cup of water
1. Wash the sliced cabbage and coat it in sea salt. Make sure every piece of cabbage is salted. Leave for three hours. The brine will draw out moisture from the cabbage, so don’t be surprised if the cabbage wilts.
2. After three hours, wash the salt off the cabbage. Do this four times or until all the salt has been washed away.
3. To make the kimchi paste, first add the cup of water to the glutinous rice flour. Mix and heat over a small flame until it thickens and bubbles slightly. Leave to cool in an ice bath or on its own.
4. Mix the chili pepper flakes, fish sauce, fermented shrimp, carrot, garlic and ginger in a bowl. Add the glutinous rice flour and water mix. Stir well.
5. Using a kitchen glove (to prevent staining your hands), coat the cabbage with the kimchi paste thoroughly. Do this bit by bit for even mixing.
6. Add the sesame seeds and spring onions. Mix again.
7. Put the kimchi into a glass jar or a food-safe plastic box. Cover and leave it overnight but do not secure the lid, as the kimchi needs to breathe. Put it into the fridge for storage and fermentation.
Tips and tricks
- To slice the carrot and radish into matchstick-sized pieces quickly, cut them into thin discs. Stack a few discs on top of each other and slice horizontally.
- Your kimchi needs to breathe – DO NOT seal the lid of the storage container. The gas buildup from the fermentation will cause leakages, or even explosions, especially in a warmer climate like Singapore’s. I forgot about this rule once and the next morning I woke up to find kimchi brine all over the kitchen counter.
- There are many different types of kimchi originating from different parts of Korea. For example, in the southern coastal areas locals add salted squid. You can also make kimchi with radish or cucumber. Some like Asian pears in their kimchi for extra sweetness.
- You can adjust the amount of pepper flakes according to your desired spice level. 100 grams is a good start, but since I like my kimchi spicy I bump it up to 120 grams.
- Let the kimchi ferment for as long as you want. For me, a week is enough. But it can keep for months on end. It all depends on your taste preference.
- Kimchi-making is also an activity you can enjoy with your loved ones. Korean families typically make a large batch once a year, and they often rope in relatives to help.
- Making kimchi with 20 heads of cabbage can take a whole weekend.
- Kimchi is not only healthy, it’s fun to make. Children will love dipping their hands into the soft, red paste, while parents can use this time to teach them the importance of eating vegetables and family tradition.