The first time I tasted kimchi, that infamous spicy fermented pickled Korean condiment, I was in my early twenties and rather clueless about the whole thing. In theory, I knew what kimchi was but as a Chicago born-Arizona bred-Polish girl, we hadn’t yet crossed paths. An acquaintance had a highly coveted homemade jar of the stuff, scored from a distant Korean relative. It had been buried – yes, buried – in a backyard for 6 months and was such a special treat he said, though I was skeptical. As he opened the jar, I was hit with a thick cloud of … funk. There is no other way to describe what assaulted my senses. I involuntarily cringed as a forkful came my way – and believe me when I say that I, the brave eater, was a bit frightened. I took a tentative bite and was completely off put. The texture was mushy yet squeaky, the flavor unbelievably spicy and downright funky. I didn’t particularly care for it in the least bit.
What I learned much much later that I had just tried a rather extreme version of the beloved stuff, one that takes a long time and deep familial connotations to develop a fondness. But much like bagna cauda, menudo and a good stinky cheese, I eventually came around. It just took me a while to muster up the courage to take another shot.
The next go around came many years later via a great pan-asian restaurant that used to be in my ‘hood. I developed a rather deep love for their bi bim bop, a delicious spicy rice dish topped with a runny egg. Their version always came with a little plastic container of pungent spicy cabbage – traditional kimchi. Much to my amazement, I became rather fond of this little stinky nibble. I knew I had turned the proverbial kimchi corner when one day my delivery arrived without the little container and in a complete huff, I threw on my boots and walked back to the restaurant in a snowstorm. For god’s sake, DON’T MESS WITH MY FOOD. From that point on, the owner would always tuck in a much larger deli container of the stuff and I never went kimchi free again.
Several months ago, on a trip to my favorite store of all times, the wonderful Korean grocery super-store Super H-Mart, I purchased a bag of Korean chile flakes (known as ko choo kah rhoo) with the thought that I’d make my own kimchi. I’d done my research and it didn’t seem much more difficult than accumulating the ingredients, stirring and then letting the mixture sit. So last week I got started with a simple cucumber version. I purchased some Kirby cucumbers, cut them into chunks and salted overnight. The next day I added half a sliced onion, a little vinegar and honey, a chopped thin red chile and some of that Korean chile powder. Gave it a good stir and then left it to sit. Presto.
Apparently, kimchi is all the rage right now. Who knew? And why wouldn’t spicy pickled vegetables be popular? There are countless varieties suited to all tastes, it’s colorful, is surprisingly delicious and jazzes up everything. However, it does some rather unexpected things to your digestive track if you eat too much. Something to consider.
After I mixed up my batch, I headed out the door and the strangest thing happened. Sitting on the mail table downstairs, I noticed the November issue of Saveur magazine had arrived. A little copy blurb on the cover caught my eye … “Korea’s Miracle Food.” Could it be? Standing in my lobby, I quickly flipped through. Sure enough, the tell-tale bright red photos called out to me. Ten full pages of kimchi love. Six recipes and a treasure trove of information on different types, ingredients and the author’s story of traveling to Korea to make a few batches with the locals. (How do I get invited to that???) Man, I’d be great at pitching magazine stories.
Actually, this is pretty indicative of what I’ve seen around town. Some of my chef pals, the cool ones anyway, are putting kimchi on their menus in unexpected places. I had delicious paco ribs (fish) with kimchi recently at The Bristol, short rib and kimchi canapés at a cocktail party catered by Bespoke Cuisine. Bill Kim just opened Belly Shack last week and I’m certain he’s got kimchi on a dozen things. On the west coast, The Kogi truck in LA is unbeliveably hot with it’s take on Korean-Latino food. Who wouldn’t want a korean short rib and kimchi taco? Even red hot David Chang made Momofuku’s kimchi on the Today show yesterday and Matt Lauer gobbled it up, much to the chef’s surprise. Me, I like to add some to a bowl of asian noodle soup, in a dumpling filling or on top of rice for an impromptu bi bim bop with a few stir-fried vegetables and a runny egg. Or I just eat it by itself in a little bowl.
If the thought of kimchi gives you pause, keep in mind there are countless varities using all sorts of vegetables and even seafood. Not all are fermented into a deep smelly funky state – some are quite fresh tasting and crunchy – and spice levels certainly vary. Maybe you’re lucky and live near a Korean market that has a kimchi bar where you can get small containers of different kinds to try (in Chicago check out Chicago Food Corporation on Kimball & I-94.) Try to find a Korean restaurant – panch’an (or banchan) is a series of little dishes that start a meal and will typically include several kinds of kimchi. Or make your own. My cucumber recipe is quite nice and there’s a daikon version that is very refreshing and crunchy. Or if you want to go all out, try David Lebovitz’s version of traditional cabbage kimchi. And be sure to check out that Saveur article – fascinating stuff.
So however you spell it … kimchi, kim chi, kim chee, gimchi, jimchi … just do it. I certainly will. Lord knows I have enough of the chili powder. That damn bag is 500g (just over a pound) and was the smallest bag I could find. I’ve used 2 Tablespoons so I’m set for … forever. Egad. Maybe I’ll open a kimchi stand on my back porch just in time for winter.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: MEDIUM. It’s not that this isn’t relaxing but there’s just not that much to it. Chop and stir. Easy peasy. Perhaps the simplicity is therapy in itself but I think the stress release factor comes into play during consumption. Kimchi can be super spicy and I think (and researchers agree) that spicy food does wonders for your central nervous system. Blows off steam (literally.) Calms the nerves. Gives you stinky breath. Cleans out your digestive track (eew I know but that’s gotta be good, right?)
Makes about 2 quarts
8-10 small Kirby cucumbers
1 Tablespoon kosher salt
1 garlic clove, minced
½ small onion, thinly sliced
1 Tablespoons Korean chili powder
1 thinly sliced red chile
½ teaspoon rice vinegar
1 ½ teaspoons mild honey (such as clover or orange blossom)
- Halve the cucumbers and cut into ½” chunks.
- In a ceramic or glass non-reactive bowl, combine the cucumbers and salt. Mix to combine.
- Let the mixture sit at room temperature for a few hours or up to overnight.
- Add garlic, onion, chili power, sliced chili, vinegar and honey.
- Mix to combine and let sit at room temperature for 24-48 hours.
- Pack into glass jars, adding a little of the accumulated brine to each jar.
- Refrigerate (this is not shelf stable). The kimchi will continue to ferment over time – this is a good thing – and the taste will change and become more funky and pronounced. Again, funky is a good thing. It should keep a few months in the fridge but probably won’t last that long.