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Funky Kimchi

In the northern hemisphere, the fall season has seeped into our bones, and cool-weather vegetables abound. Cabbage and its many siblings are plentiful. Cook them too long, and some find the funky sulfur compounds reek, unbearably. But, if you are not bothered by the funk factor, consider Napa cabbage, Brassica rapa subspecies pekinensis, a cabbage variety that is the foundation of kimchi.

Sunhui Chang, a Korean-American restaurateur at FuseBox, who grew up in a restaurant family makes an amalgamated kimchi recipe, Oakland-style. Eat it immediately, or let it ferment. Either way you will revel in intense taste and healing. Still funky, but oh so good, and good for you.


The Brassica genus probably originated in the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern area with a secondary center of origin in China. Brassica oleracea, from the Mediterranean, includes such common fare as broccoli, Brussels sprout, cabbage, cauliflower, collards and kale. Brassica rapa, from China, includes the milder Chinese or napa cabbage, bok choy, mizuna, turnip roots and greens.

Culinary homes

According to Chang, Korean kimchi goes back a millennia and most probably began as simple salt pickling. Traditionally, kimchi preparation occurred seasonally throughout the summer with a big batch made before the winter. Now, kimchi is made all year long.

“There’s always something in season to kimchi,” Chang said.

The salting is the initial pickling. Salt changes the texture and flavor of the ingredients, and decreases the water content. So, in essence, kimchi is a two-step process: the salting, and then the adding of the che to begin fermentation. The che in Chang’s kimchi includes garlic, ginger, chili peppers, salted shrimp, sugar and rice flour paste. In this case, che is everything but the cabbage.

“My mother was from the southern village of Masan,” Chang said. “But we grew up in Inchon, northwest and close to Seoul. So my Korean cooking is fused. Southern kimchi is fierier. Korean southerners like more kick in their food.”

Each household or restaurant has its own version of kimchi che. Variations include salted anchovies and even oysters instead of salted shrimp.

“Basically, there are more varieties of che than you can shake a stick at,” Chang said.

“Sweet rice paste adds a wonderful, subtle, sweetness and absorbs some of the pungency of the kimchi. Since kimchi can get a bit funky,” he said

And though Chang is a napa cabbage kimchi aficionado, he is even more enthusiastic about the leafy greens like radish greens, tokio turnip tops or young rapini. Just blanch, shock, salt, rinse, dry, chop and add the che. You get to use the entire plant, savor multiple tastes and textures, and reap the benefits that come with eating nutrient-dense greens.

Chang refrigerates kimchi to extend the shelf life, and it still ferments. The kimchi, if left out, will ferment rapidly in the summer months. And as it ages, kimchi’s texture and flavor evolve.

“Some like their kimchi fresher, and others, like my Dad, loved his kimchi sour, too sour for most tastes. When the kimchi sours, it’s time to make kimchi jjige [stew],” he said. “When you are poor, you don’t even throw away soured cabbage. How beautiful is that?”

Healing traditions

Before refrigeration, all cultures creatively devised ways to preserve food, increase nutrient content and please the palate. Historically, food preservation included three main forms: drying, salting and fermentation. Kimchi is one of many fermented foods rich in nutrients. Fermentation results in foods that have been subjected to the action of microorganisms or enzymes, so that desirable biochemical changes cause significant modification to the food. Fermentation has the added benefit of imparting beneficial bacteria or probiotics to a diet. When beneficial lactic acid bacteria and its many microflora brethren predominate in your gut, you get added protection from gastrointestinal infections and antibiotic-associated diarrhea diseases.

Brassica plants are known for their healing properties. In particular they contain a high amount of glucosinolates. Breakdown products of glucosinolates, such as indoles and isothiocyanates, have shown anticarcinogenic properties.

Perhaps it is time to hunker down, grab those cool-weather cabbage plants; make some kimchis with the roots, leaves or greens; and eat and heal.

Sunhui Chang’s Napa Cabbage Kimchi


1 medium napa cabbage (which should be heavy and firm)
1 tablespoon garlic, about 5 cloves, pounded with a mortar and pestle
1-inch piece of ginger, grated
2 scallions cut into 1- to 2-inch strips
1 medium carrot, peeled and julienned into 3-inch strands
1 medium daikon or green neck radish
⅙ cup finely ground red chili pepper Go Chu Karu (Korean chili powder)
⅙ cup coarsely red chili pepper Go Chu Karu
1 tablespoon small salted shrimp of Seau Jot
¼ cup white sugar
1 tablespoon sweet rice flour
½ cup water
(optional) ¼ of a Korean shingo pear, other Asian pear or Fuji apple, julienned in 1- to 3-inch strips, if you would like to add a crunchy sweetness


  1. Wash cabbage.
  2. Cut cabbage into quarters. Cut away inedible tips. Cut quarters into 2-inch squares.
  3. Salt cabbage for minimum of 3 hours. Rinse cabbage of salt and squeeze out water.
  4. For one medium Napa cabbage, add ¼ cup salt.
  5. To make the sweet rice flour paste, in small pot, mix sweet rice flour and water. Whisk over medium-high heat for 2-3 minutes until thickened. Set aside to cool.
  6. In a large mixing bowl, add the following: pounded garlic, grated ginger, cut green scallions, julienned carrots and daikon, coarse and fine red chili pepper, sugar, salted shrimp, sweet rice powder paste, shingo pear. Mix thoroughly with hand.
  7. Combine cabbage with kimchi mix, mix thoroughly with hand (gloved)
  8. Store in glass or stainless steel air-tight container, and refrigerate.


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Kimchi ingredients. Credit: Sarah Khan

Zester Daily contributor Sarah Khan is founder and director of the nonprofit Tasting Cultures Foundation, which develops multimedia educational programming on food and culture.
Check out Sarah’s video, The Rhythm of Kimchi, now showing on the Zester Video.

Top photo:Sunhui Chang.

Credit for all photos and slide show: Sarah Khan

Zester Daily contributor Sarah Khan writes about food, culture, climate and sustainability. For her second Fulbright, she is presently traveling in South and Central Asia for a year (2014-15) to tell the stories of female farmers as they contend with a rapidly degraded agricultural landscape, gender inequality, poverty and climate change. She will document their challenges and victories in multiple media. To follow her journey, visit her website.