One of the most fascinating things about kimchi is how no other food on Earth has as much of a beloved following by its people. Russia is linked to its love for vodka, Germans spread their love of beer throughout the world in the late 1800’s but the obsession of Korea with kimchi goes even deeper. After millions of dollars and years of research, South Korean scientists successfully developed kimchi to be brought to space by their first astronaut in 2008. Koreans like to say that where they go, kimchi goes too.
What makes kimchi so irresistible? To me, it’s because it assails the senses with so many layers of texture and flavor. You have the crunch of the napa cabbage, the bright tang of the acid produced by wild fermentation, the garlic, ginger and the way the fruity pepper flakes cling to it all, making every bite pack a punch. I used to have a ritual of always hoarding homemade sauerkraut in my refrigerator but after making kimchi on a whim, I decided that, like the South Korean astronauts, I’m always going to have it on hand so it goes where I go too.
The magic of kochukaru
The hardest part about making kimchi is finding the main spice, kochukaru, which is Korean dried hot pepper flakes. These peppers feature a flavor that’s moderately spicy, bright and relatively fruity. If you really want the signature irresistible spicy tang of kimchi, I suggest you track it down. It can be found at most Korean supermarkets such as HMart in the US, other markets specializing in asian food or it can also be found online here
. If you can’t find it, substituting Aleppo pepper flakes comes pretty close. You may also get decent results by using a mixture of half ancho pepper flakes and half guajillo pepper flakes. Whatever you do, don’t use cayenne because it’s way too spicy.
One of the reasons I’m a sauerkraut to kimchi convert is due to how brilliant the preparation method is. Kimchi utilizes a rice starch that’s gelatinized and mixed into a purée. Then ingredients such as kochukaru, soy sauce, scallions, garlic, ginger and salt are mixed into this purée so it sticks to everything and is consistently distributed throughout the condiment. This ensures that every bite has consistent flavor and the texture is both soft and crunchy.
Using what I call the kimchi methodology, you can create many other fermented condiments utilizing regional vegetables and spices instead of Korean ones, while using the same steps you would use to make traditional Korean kimchi. For example, I recently made what I jokingly referred to as Moroccan Kimchi, featuring Ras El Hanout instead of kochukaru, and replaced some of the vegetables with cucumbers, eggplant, figs, dates and pomegranate juice. The possibilities are endless. Speaking of possibilities, there are many traditional ways to make classic Korean kimchi too. I don’t insist that this recipe is the one true version but I feel that it’s a good representation of classic Korean kimchi with an obviously vegan slant. This particular version doesn’t call for fish sauce, anchovies or shrimp which is often used in kimchi but I make up for it with soy sauce and other minor ingredient adjustments.
If you make kimchi or sauerkraut even semi-regularly, I highly recommend investing in a suitable crock that includes weights and a suitable airlock. I prefer Harsch
brand crocks for this purpose because they’re affordable and they feature an airlock consisting of a deep groove around the rim that allows it to be filled with water to be air tight. The Harsch crocks feature a particularly deep groove that can usually hold enough water for the duration of your fermentation, unlike many other brands. This is important because if the water in your airlock evaporates, the airlock fails and bad microbes can get in which will create more work for you in the form of sludge removal when fermentation is done. For years I improvised with various jars, buckets and cheesecloth and had no idea what I was missing until I finally broke down and bought a crock.
Dedicated crocks are recommended because fermented vegetables need to be weighted down sufficiently so they release some of their water. Having the whole operation airlocked will keep your home from smelling like fermenting food which will keep your significant other significantly happier, believe me. An airlock will also keep suspicious sludge from growing on the surface of your ferment. Yes, I said, “suspicious sludge from growing on your ferment”. When ambient air gets exposed to your ferment, it brings with it other microbes that aren’t welcome. In non-airlocked crocks, this sludge is just picked off and discarded after fermentation is complete. Airlocked crocks prevent this from happening as long as you keep the lid on for the duration of the fermentation, save for a couple peeks. This is because as the vegetables ferment, C02 is released. In an airlocked crock, this C02 sits on top of the vegetables, forming a protective layer.
If you’re not ready to invest in a crock yet, you can improvise by locating a clean, food grade plastic bucket, filling a jar that has a slightly smaller diameter than the bucket with water, sealing it and placing it on top of the vegetables. Covering the bucket with cheesecloth and securing it with a rubber band keeps insects out. Keep in mind that you’ll need to pick out the sludge and discard it when fermentation is complete.
Lower temperatures down to 55F (13C) will increase fermentation times but result in a more complex acid profile and longer shelf life. Higher temperatures up to 90F (32C) will result in reduced fermentation times, sharper, more aggressive acid profiles and shorter overall shelf life. This is because different temperatures favor different microbes and the microbes release varying amounts of flavor compounds at different temperatures. Room temperature is advised. During hot New York City summers where my home gets into the mid 90s, I ferment in a homemade dedicated temperature controlled refrigeration chamber set to 68F (20C) because I’m crazy like that.
To learn more about the nutritional benefits of kimchi or how to improvise your own crock, check out my article on How to Make Sauerkraut
. You can also use your vegan kimchi in Kimchi Vegan Butter
and Kimchi Puff Pastry with Shiitake Mushrooms and Pine Nuts
1 medium daikon radish
2 medium sized carrots
½ fuji apple, cored, or ripe asian pear
2 cups (473 ml) water
½ cup (70 g) glutinous white rice flour
⅓ cup (40 g) kochukaru (Korean dried hot pepper flakes)
⅓ cup (78 ml) soy sauce
3 medium sized scallions, cut into 1 inch pieces
one small head of garlic, peeled
1.5 ounces (43 g, or about 1.5 inches) ginger, peeled
2 Tablespoons (30 g) salt
4 to 5 pounds (1.8 to 2.3 kg) Napa cabbage, washed and drained
1) Shred the daikon, carrots and apple
In a food processor with the shredding attachment, shred the daikon, carrots and apple. Alternatively, you can use a mandoline or cheese grater for shredding. Transfer the vegetables and fruit to a medium bowl and set aside.
2) Gelatinize the rice flour into a slurry
In a small saucepan, add the water, white rice flour and bring the mixture to a boil. Remove from heat and transfer to a food processor.
3) Process the slurry and other spicy ingredients
Fit your food processor with the blade attachment. Add the kochukaru, soy sauce, scallions, garlic, ginger and salt and process until smooth.
4) Pour the spicy slurry over the chopped vegetables
Transfer the mixture to the bowl containing the shredded vegetables from Step 1 and stir to combine.
5) Chop the napa cabbage
Remove the outer leaves from the cabbage and discard them. Cut the cabbage in half lengthwise. Now cut those halves into quarters. Carefully slice the quarters into strips about 1 inch wide, lengthwise. Cut out the core on each slice then cut each strip into 1 inch wide squares. The goal is to cut the cabbage into roughly 1 inch squares. If you prefer your kimchi to have larger strips, slice the cabbage accordingly.
6) Mix the vegetables
Place the leaves into a large mixing bowl and add the spiced vegetable mixture. Using both hands, grab handfulls of the kimchi mixture and squeeze as if you’re kneading bread. This breaks down the vegetables and releases liquid so it can more easily be fermented. Work your way around the mixing bowl for about 5 minutes. There should be liquid starting to appear in the bottom of the bowl.
7) Ferment the kimchi to perfection
Transfer the kimchi to a clean crock, weigh it down with the clean weights and seal with a clean suitable airlock or lid. If you don’t have a crock you can use a large clean bowl or bucket, place a weight on top consisting of a clean jar filled with water and cover the top of the bowl or bucket with cheesecloth secured with a rubber band. Ferment at room temperature (about 68F or 20C) for 1 to 5 days, depending on the acidity and tartness desired. Transfer the kimchi to a large covered container in the refrigerator where it will last up to a year. Makes about 10 pounds (4.5 kg) vegan kimchi.