Kimchi, the national dish of Korea, has been prepared, fermented and served as a daily tradition for more than 2,000 years. It’s served cold but is so spicy you take another bite to cool your mouth.
This extremely spicy recipe may be a side dish, but it has mythical standing at the Korean table.
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“It tastes good. It will make you live long,” says Byong Joo “B.J.” Yu, owner of the gargantuan Koreana Plaza mega food store in Rancho Cordova, Calif.. His store doesn’t merely offer kimchi. It’s displayed in a refrigerated case so large you feel as if you’re approaching the Great Wall of Kimchi.
When Yu was growing up in Korea, he was served his mother’s homemade kimchi every day, Yu remembers. “It doesn’t matter how old the kimchi is. It’s good from the first day to as long as it lasts. You can eat it all the way — no waste.”
When it ages and the taste leans to sour, it’s served in soup.
Because Korea is a cold country, cool-weather-loving cabbage and radish (daikon) dominate the favored types of vegetables for kimchi, although there are nearly 200 versions.
What begins as a pickle morphs into a fermented dish. Koreans famously place new kimchi in big black pottery jars and bury them in the ground to keep the very-much-alive cultures in kimchi at an even, cool temperature.
Yu eats kimchi every day. “It makes your stomach comfortable.”
Yu may not know why he’s right, but he is.
“There’s been a real emergence in the public, and a real mystique, about the wonders of fermented foods,” says Maria Marco, assistant professor at the University of California, Davis’ department of food science and technology. “The flavor profiles change, because the microorganisms continue to grow. It’s nature’s way of making food taste different.”
Kimchi is a powerful vegetable probiotic, Marco says. It contributes health benefits in a manner similar to that provided by dairy probiotic foods, such as in yogurt.
And with many in the medical community now referring to the gut as the second brain, kimchi benefits that gut IQ by helping the body absorb nutrients.
“There’s a microbial zoo in there,” Marco says of kimchi. “The bacteria consume the sugars on the vegetable and they spit out the organic acids, which are easily digested by our bodies,” Marco says, all of which increases gut flora and aids digestion.
Kimchi is also nature’s way of preserving food.
Yu said that despite its ability to age, most kimchi is about a 3 months old or just-made. About a year is enough for the flavor to change from something fresh, spicy and cole slaw-like to what Yu describes as sour.
“Usually youngsters like the sour taste. As you get older, you prefer the fresh. I’m 57 and I still like it sour.” When kimchi is highly fermented, Yu says the best way to serve it is in cold soup.
At a Korean restaurant, kimchi is never ordered alone. It just shows up when you order your entrée along with lots of other side dishes called banchan. Restaurant kimchi is invariably fresh.
It’s not hard to make kimchi, but it takes time. Napa cabbage (also called Chinese cabbage) is wilted in salted water several hours and rinsed well. Then, packed under each leaf, is a marinade of Korean red pepper powder, sugar, a good deal of garlic and fresh ginger, shredded daikon and tiny shrimp. This marinade may have soy sauce or fish sauce, anchovy or dried oyster or a combination.
The most obvious ingredient, at least to the taste buds, is Korean red pepper powder. It is not cayenne or paprika, but a member of the capsicum family called gochugaru that is incredibly hot. It’s called and sold under a variety of brands in flakes or coarse and medium grind.
For some, kimchi may be too spicy. Yu says for Koreans, there’s no such thing. “It’s not spicy to us.”
Kimchi is so readily available that it’s rarely made at home. At Koreana Plaza, it’s made on site every day. For beginners, Yu recommends picking up a small container of fresh kimchi either from a Korean or Asian store that makes it on site. Or, choose among a half dozen of high quality commercial brands sold in jars and kept cold in the produce section of many grocery stores.
Best temperature for kimchi?
Kimchi of any age sold cold is best. If the jar is shelf stable at room temperature, the heat from being processed has most likely destroyed kimchi’s best properties.
Kimchi is typically mixed with other foods on the table, such as rice, noodles and stews. Recently I thinly sliced prepared kimchi and added it to a batch of basic American cole slaw, mayonnaise dressing and all. This surprise addition of kimchi, which will stump guests trying to guess the surprise ingredient, keeps the cabbage theme while adding a vague sourness and an extreme hit of spice.
Main photo: Freshly made kimchi. Credit: 4kodiak / iStockphoto