As a little girl in korea, I used to help my grandmother make kimchi by being the taste-tester to make sure it was of the appropriate saltiness. I'm still convinced that this contributed to the development of my palate at an early age which makes me the cook I am today - a damn good one! :D
This past Sunday was spent with my mom (who I love very much but who also drives me nuts sometimes) making kimchi, that traditional korean spiced pickled cabbage that many of us know and love. You see, my mom has this friend who apparently makes some of the best kimchi in LA.... so good in fact that her children won't buy regular old supermarket kimchi or even fancy expensive boutique kimchi (yes, that does exist by the way) because their mom's kimchi is that good. My mom was fortunate enough to have a kimchi knowledge transfer session with her, and I wanted to make sure that these super-awesome kimchi-making skills were passed on to me.
Now on to the adventure!
Here's my mom preparing the brine in order to salt the cabbage. She uses coarse sea salt and adds enough salt to create a saturated solution (think high school chemistry) - in other words, as much salt as possible that will melt in the water. Using warm water for this task seems to help.
When you split the cabbage in half, start at the white heads and cut about 2/3 - 3/4 of the way through and finish the splitting process by hand (for the green/yellow parts). This minmizes crumbling of the more delicate lower leaves. Once you get the soak going for these cabbage halves, rub some more of the coarse salt into the white part of the heads since these stiffer parts are more resistant to the salt penetration. Set aside for a couple of hours like this.
Next, it's time to start the sauce. Add 2 parts cold water to one part sweet rice flour (which you can purchase at most asian grocery stores) and dissolve (kinda like working with cornstarch). Then bring this mixture to a rolling boil while constantly stirring in order to prevent the paste from sticking to the bottom and/or burning. The mixture will be a bit lumpy at first, but as you keep cooking it, the lumps will dissolve. This process kind of reminded me of tempering chocolate - steady does it. You should make a lot of this. If you have leftover sauce, you can make lots of other wonderful things with it, but if you don't have enough to make your kimchi, you're kind of screwed. Once the paste is boiling, transfer to a large bowl and allow to cool.
Now it's time to prep your veggie fillings for the kimchi. You can use any combination of aromatic leafy greens that you like. We make ours traditional style with scallions, ghat (peppery leafy thing, don't know what it's called in english, sorry), radish greens, chives. Give all these guys a rough chop.
Secret Ingredient #1 - raw squid
You're probably thinking WTF? But adding raw seafood is really essential to the eathy flavor of kimchi and anything raw you throw in will be cooked through the fermentation process... not too different from an over-ripe ceviche. Trraditional kimchi often uses raw oysters which I sort of despise, so I'm glad that this version uses squid which I find much more palatable. And once the kimchi is ready to eat, these squid pieces become little nuggets of flavor heaven! Buy the freshest and best squid you can find and give it a fine chop, a little finer than what's pictured here.
Next add red pepper powder to the sweet rice paste that you've prepared and cooled. It doesn't have to be cold or even room temperature, but you want to make sure the paste isn't hot, because if it's too warm, then it will take away the spicy kick that you absolutely want from the red pepper powder. Don't scrimp with this ingredient and make sure to buy good quality red pepper powder, preferably made especially for kimchi. Add A LOT of it. You want this sauce to be a deep dark red and not a pastey orange like you see here.
Secret Ingredients #2 and #3
I forgot to take a picture of the prep portion of this step, but the white swirly things are actually a mixture of grated apples and grated onions that I prepped in the food processor. The grating of these two ingredients helps them fully incorporate into the sauce will add a sweetness and aroma that will give kimchi that multi-dimensional delicious bite! There's also a generous amount of chopped garlic and little grated ginger as well in here.
This is how your sauce should look when you've added all the "dry" ingredients - really red and really thick. The consistency is almost akin to a loose peanut butter or a dry tapenade. It's starting to smell and taste pretty good now, but we aren't done yet, oh no...
Add a heap of julienned daikon radish to this paste. This is best prepared on a japanese mandolin or one of those craptastic devices they sell on latenight infomercials - unless you've got some mad knife skills in which case I supposed you can do this by hand.
By this point, you probably want to mix this up by hand since your little wooden spoon ain't gonna cut it any more. Make sure you wear disposable (or not) plastic gloves to protect your skin from the peppers and also so your skin won't stain and your hands won't smell like garlic. Add the remaining aromatic veggies that you prepared earlier and stir it up in this mix. Now is the time to adjust the saltiness. Instead of salt, use fish sauce to adjust the saltiness to give the flavors more body (kind of like how everything tastes better when cooked in animal fat than canola oil - same concept here). They make fish sauce specifically for kimchi, but I think any salty fish sauce would work here. Let these flavors sit and marinate at room temperature for a couple of hours.
The cabbage should be brined for about 4-6 hours, but make sure to rotate the cabbage at the halfway point so most of the pieces get a chance to be submerged in the saltwater solution. When you're executing this rotation is probably a good time to cut the cabbage halves into quarters. Once the brining process is complete, give each cabbage piece a good rinse in cold water - twice - to stop the brining process. You'll need to switch out this water fairly often as it gets salty fast from rinsing. After you're done rinsing, place the cabbage in a basket or colander to drain out as much of the water as possible so you don't dilute the pepper mixture once it's ready to go in.
Once the cabbage is ready, it's time to get stuffin! Grab a few handfulls of the seasoned mix and place in a large bowl. Grab a quarter of the brined cabbage and mop the outside of it generously with the seasoned mix all over, especially the sides or anyplace where white color is peeking out. Then, starting with the outermost leaf, mop the inside of it with a small bit of the seasoned mix and leave a little bit of the seasoned mix in that leaf and move on to the next outer leaf. Work your way towards the center of the cabbage head this way until every leaf has been mopped over and has a bit of the veggies from the seasoned mix in between the leaves. It's important that the veggie bits are only stuffed into the white portion of the leaf and not the green or yellow parts as the white parts are most resistant to being penetrated by flavor which is why we leave these little bits behind for those parts. This is also what creates the attractive layered look in the finished product. This will take a while, so get comfy, pop in some Beach Boys or whatever else you enjoy, preferably with people you enjoy being around.
Almost done! Once the cabbage has been fully violated by the seasoned mix and mopped thoroughly to a crimson hue, place them snuggly in a container of your choice. You want them packed snug, but not too tight. And fill the container about 3/4 of the way as the kimchi will expand and release water as it ferments and you don't want it to explode with kimchi juice when you're finally ready to enjoy these bad boys.
Optionally, you can add a layer of cut up radishes (or leftovers from the julienning process since you didn't want to slice off a finger with the mandolin) to the finished kimchi. It's recommended to cover all this with a layer of plastic wrap to minimize exposure to oxygen or undesirable outside elements.
Depending on how fast you want to eat these, you can ferment them at room temperature, in the fridge, or in my mom's case, her bad ass kimchi refrigerator. Did you know that you can get a refrigerator especially for optimizing kimchi flavor and longevity? My mom paid $1500 for one of these things! eeek! Back in the old days, koreans would put the kimchi in clay jars and bury them in dirt over the winter. I remember eating my grandma's kimchi that still had the frozen crystals on them from being stored outside during the cold korean winters which is generally when this type of kimchi is prepared.
You may have noticed that I didn't really give any exact measures or quantities or times. That's because kimchi making is largely a taste-and-go process that leaves a lot of room for flexibility. Just taste things as you go along, add more or less of things you like and go with your sense of taste and you'll be sure to create something you'll enjoy.
Obviously, this is a lot of work and something you probably don't want to undertake often or alone. But the reward is so mouthwatering and irresistible! Pair it with a piping hot bowl of plain white rice and all this effort will be well worth it :)