What is kimchi?
Kimchi is a process of seasoning and preserving vegetables. There are hundreds of varieties each specific to a region’s locality. The process itself is quite simple, but the craft of it comes from understanding these variations and knowing how to treat each ingredient differently. The art, must surely come from our interaction with the invisible biome of fermenting bacteria, the faith and slow working of time and the open conversation with our nature.
What if I don’t have some of the ingredients?
Korean chilli flakes are sun dried and have a smoky, sweet taste. They also do not contain the seeds, so the heat is measured and warm. They are flaked, not powdered, so that they give off their colour while remaining distinct. What you end up with is a medium hot, striking red kimchi.
You can purchase Korean chilli flakes from most Asian supermarkets as well as some online ones, such as orientalmart.co.uk or souschef.co.uk. If you want to use something you have already at home, I would recommend using something without the seeds , or if with the seeds then in a much smaller ratio.
It’s important to note that chillis aren’t native to Korea, and all kimchi was white upto a certain point. A lot of kimchi still is made without chilli. So you can omit it altogether!
I’ve met folks who’ve opted for smoked paprika in the past. You can also use fresh red chillis and slice them very thinly without the seeds, for a bit of colour and heat.
What is the starch water for, and do I have to use sushi rice?
You can certainly use other white rice - the water ratio may be different, and the flavour will somewhat change, but you will still have the starch.
The starch is essentially a little boost of food for the lactobacillus as well as some other fermenting bacteria. It also adds a mellow flavour and some texture to the sauce. It is used in different amounts depending on when and with what the kimchi is made.
In Korea, as well as most Asian cuisine, rice is king. High quality grains cooked right can be as delicious to our taste as freshly baked sourdough. It is savoury and mellow, nourishing, with a moreish chewy texture. Korean rice is specific, and you may achieve better flavour using it, but it’s definitely not a must.
*warning - geeky arty food babble below*
Kimchi as a photograph
Korean cuisine in its ethos is not dissimilar to the Mediterranean. We have an abundance of mountains and coast and are fairly low in latitude. In spring, we mainly eat fresh vegetables steamed or fried and seasoned gently. I remember distinctly having a meal that consisted of half a dozen side dishes, all varieties of what we would consider weeds, in varying dressings of sesame, perilla, garlic, pepper and salt. In this way, we too put our emphasis on doing little to our produce and eating it simply.
The difference stems from our winters and the evolved culture of fermentation. Our winters see much snow and freezing temperatures. And so over time, we came to preserve and ferment the abundant glut of produce over growing seasons. Another key difference is the relationship of our produce with aspergillus oryzae, a key bacteria for the creation of soy bean paste and soy sauce.
So in this way, kimchi is one of many ways in which we capture a certain time of year. To the day. A baechu cabbage will be seasoned with chilli grown and dried under the hot sun, with aromatics that are abundant, and the cabbage picked when it is full of life and in celebration of the weather. We put it away, and in the cold months, we are reminded of that day.
Kimchi can be more than a dish (or a trend)
Fermentation and kimchi, in this regard, can be a principle, a value, an attitude. We don’t need to save our glut and prevent our waste in the same way as we used to when we farmed our food. Well, except that we probably do. We probably create more waste than we did before but it remains out of site. In any case, it makes for a healthier, more varied and delicious larder.
Understanding Korean cuisine
Kimchi makes up a bapsang, a setting, a spread. You could think of it as not dissimilar to thali. Instead of one plate that we individually eat from (though we do this with certain broths or noodle dishes), most often we have a spread that consists of side dishes, rice, soup or stew. I always remember my grandmother’s fridge, with its multitudes of side dishes waiting to be brought out in whatever combination we fancied, to go with a simple main dish of grilled fish or meat, or a broth.
Because we have these ferments, dishes that have been ticking away and developing for months or even years, a Korean bapsang is full of varying textures and seasons. A fresh, lightly steamed namul dressed lightly in perilla oil may sit next to a deep, salty pickle. The steamy, chewy rice is seasoned with a sauce that has been looked after and cared for years. In practical terms, it also means that we don’t necessarily cook each time we eat. Most of our meals are bolstered by dishes that have been made in the past, steadily developing in flavour.
I think this is an important thing - because with different cultures of food, there are different cultures of eating. There are different cultures of growing, cooking. Really, there are different cultures of time. If you are making kimchi as a one off, it may seem odd and out of place to spend an hour then wait three weeks to eat it. But if you take on something of the culture, then you may find that you make a lot of things in advance, and on a rainy day, you only need to pull out a few dishes sitting in your fridge to have a delicious meal.
The contrast, variety and sharing is a key element of Korean food. I hope over the year, as we release recipes, you may find your fridge filling up with delicious treats!