March 20, 2006

Making Kimchi: Kimjang style

After several weeks of my mother's "I should make kimchi" or "It's time to make kimchi," she finally made her trip to the Korean grocery store last week and bought a box of napa cabbage. As every kimchi-making household or wife knows, the end of one batch of kimchi creates a certain sense of fait accompli that another cycle has completed its course and then the subsequent feelings of anticipation, unease and even doom over the fact that a certain amount of effort and time would have to be devoted to the making of another batch of kimchi. I can't say I'm one of those women but I can certainly say my mother is one. For her table, not having kimchi is liking not having rice which means not having a meal at all. Well, a Korean meal.

I came upon the process a little late this time. Usually, my help is appreciated at the beginning of the process when she's washing and salting the cabbage and preparing the radish chilli stuffing. "Pour the salt," "A little more," "Sugar. That's enough," etc. This time, she had already salted the cabbage and had prepared the inside which was held in a large container wrapped neatly with some plastic wraps.

What goes into this preparation is particular to each family or even each person who makes it. And this is where most of the effort goes in since you have to cut the daikon radishes into small strips, along with gathering and preparing other ingredients. If you don't have a good mandolin, this is the reason to get one. A good mandolin doesn't have to cost a lot, though. My mother uses one that's less than $20. The main ingredients are raddish, ground chili peppers, garlic, onion, scallions and fish sauce. I've known folks who put 7-up, Asian pears, oysters and a whole a lot of stuff but I don't think my mother used these this time.

I wouldn't be able to reproduce the recipe even if I tried - I don't think my mother could either for that matter - since no Korean cook ever measures anything. It's all about intuition and experience. If haute French cuisine is a matter of precision and innovation, Korean cusine is all about intuition and authenticity. The paradox is that no Korean family's cooking tastes the same as another and, other than rules regarding certain sets of ingredients, what is authentic tasting in Korean food is arbitrary yet fiercely held as an arbiter of good Korean cooking. You ask any Korean, and he/she can tell you if something tastes "authentic" or not.

As for the fish sauce, there are many versions of it. This time, my mother used one made with tiny shrimps that she purchased in a gallon jar. "When are we going to eat all that?" I ask and she relied, "It's so much cheaper to buy in bulk." Right. That fish sauce will be in the fridge for a long time. It's salted so it'll never go bad. and it's odorless, almost. Thank goodness. Along with the quality of the chili peppers and cabbage, my mother prizes the quality of fish sauce as the top in bringing out the flavor of kimchi.

Once you have the cabbage and the stuffing, all it remains is to stuff the cabbage. This is the kimjang style, as opposed to cutting the cabbage in small bits and directly seasoning with chili peppers and other ingredients. Traditionally kimchi was made kimjang style just before the cold months of the winter when fresh vegetables were not available and you needed a large quantity of kimchi to last you through the winter. Kimchi was made and stored in large pots that were dug into the ground. Although I remember women "doing" kimjang when I was little in Korea, I think the practice is rare these days and the practice of "burying" kimchi underground is even more rare. Now with kimchi refrigerators not to mention regular ones, along with veggies available year around, kimchi can stay "fresh" and yummy for a long long time.

After you stuff individual cabbage - here they were cut in half or quarters - you wrap it into a little bun before placing in a container of your choice. And you really want to wear rubber gloves.

Now, all you have to do is wait a few days or weeks until kimchi reaches your desired fermentation. My family likes kimchi when it's fresh and just ripe. After that, they are kimchi stew.


Antti said...

Nice to see you back blogging!

As there's a growing awareness of the delights of kimchi even in Finland - especially among my friends - I've put up a page for instructions with pics. Does your mother make starch from glutinous rice flour for the seasoning mix? We'd be lost if we didn't have a coldroom in the ground floor of our apartment to store the kimchi, and we're yet to hear complaints about smells...

db said...


Very nice pictures on your kimchi instruction page. Thanks for sharing. As for the starch, I don't think my mother uses any starch in her kimchi seasoning. It could be a regional thing?

And did you hear the rumor about kimchi's supposed properties against the bird flu virus? I have no idea if there's any validity in it at all but short of a real vaccine, kimchi it is.

john patrick said...

Mmmmm. I love kimchi, but there's no way I can make it. I feel so discouraged! Can I just have some of yours?

Teri Lester said...

Do you know the brand of mandoline that your mother got for $20? I bought one that was around $13 but it was horrible.

Antti said...

I don't think I've yet heard about kimchi and bird flu. Perhaps there's something to it since I eat kimchi and haven't caught bird flu yet... Having an object loaded with a lot of cultural meaning is not peculiar to Koreans, but seeing a thing like kimchi as a cure for everything perhaps is.

Now kimchi is making such inroads into our country where the first Korean restaurant was opened as late as last summer that even the foremost language authority, the Research Institute for the Languages of Finland, has deemed it proper to introduce it as a new word.

ding said...

wow! you're back! i'm so glad. i missed all the food and pictures.

ding said...

and you, of course!

db said...

Just come visit. There's plenty of kimchi in my parents' kimchi fridge. That's where I get mine.

I think the brand is called something like Berliner. It's usually stocked high in Korean groceries.

Ding -

albert said...

Nice picture work!

I've tried to pursuade my mom to "bury" some of the kimchi pots in the ground this year, but didn't go through. We have a fridge instead.

What will we do without kimchi?

Thanks for sharing.

Evil Jonny said...

Geez, was it me who was just ranting about nobody blogging about kimchi?

john patrick said...

Hey DB,

My mama is so excited about making your kim chee. She's probably not going to stuff the cabbage, but she was all about getting the fish sauce avec les toutes petites crevettes la dedans.

I have some questions about banchan. I tried to call you the other day!

Melting Wok said...

Thx for the descriptive pictorial on making kimchis, luv it !! hmm..makes me wanna get some of that in korean town soon, cheers ! :)

stacey said...

Awww...your blog brings back such memories from my childhood, and well even much more recent. Now that I've moved to a different state from my mom and sisters, all the stuff that I thought was too much work and embarrassing (ie your dotori post - so relateable!); I have new found appreciation for authentic, mom made, Korean food. Thanks!

Jonah said...

Wow, I love kimchi. I'm not korean, but I am envious of how much friggin kim chi you got right there.

If I didn't live in a studio, I'd make a batch myself.

MAYA said...

I have taken keen interest in Kimchee-making for a while now because I like eating it. Thanks for the information you have shared. To be honest there was no new information there but it is still good to validate the process I already apply.

I put together a Kimchee Club with members within my acquaintance realm. These few members get my Kimchee everytime I make it. For a while I just gave it to them for free but it has gotten expensive to produce correctly so now they pay $7 for a quart of Kimchee that I containerize in a Butterball mason jar. Obviously the whole thing is at cost, and I make it all myself. (No big deal since I am a CIA-graduate and a professional chef, and I like making and consuming Kimchee myself.) One of your bloggers (John Patrick), I can make him an honorary member of the KImchee Club and I'll send him a sample if he wants.

Thanks again for your blog, reach me for a chat. MAYA