Tuesday, 24 March 2009

The best Kim Chi, at last

After months of experimentation and kilos of cabbage eating, I finally have a kim chi recipe I am happy with. This probably sounds ridiculous, I mean, its kim chi, how hard can it be? Cabbage, chilli, garlic, ginger - mix it up and Bob's your uncle, right? Apparently with me, wrong.

With a vegetable as watery and bland as Chinese cabbage (really, its only redeeming quality is its crunch), a few flavourings go a long way, and for weeks I ended up with batches of Korean pickle that veered between having waaaay too much salt, sugar, chilli (creating 'Atomic Kim Chi'), ginger, garlic or any combination of these. You name it, I overdid it.

I have finally learned my lesson and realised that less is more, but the rate at which I am churning and fermenting kim chi at a rate is still being overstripped by how quickly I eat it. Want some crisps? Kim chi! Feeling peckish? Kim chi! Feel like breakfast? Kim chi! Hell, any time you feel like munching? Kim chi!!

My method is not the traditional way of preparing classic kim chi, but I think it suits modern kitchens as it is significantly less stinky than fermenting the cabbage whole in a cool dark place, with seasonings layered between each leaf. I'm no expert but I thought this was a pretty interesting round up of general kim chi related info.

Try to find Korean chilli flakes and fish sauce. You could substitue fresh or crushed dried chillies with no seeds, and Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce, but the results won't be quite the same. I'm afraid I have no idea how to pronounce the names for the ingredients you need in Korean, but here's a picture - I showed a similar one to a nice lady in Korean supermarket and she was able to help.

You can leave out the daikon and/or the spring onions, but I like the flavour they add to the mix.

1 large Chinese cabbage, approx. 1.25kg, cut into thick 5cm rounds, then quartered into squares
10% of the cabbage weight in sea salt, so 125g in this case
1 fat clove of garlic, crushed or finely grated
A small chunk of ginger (equivalent to half of the garlic), finely grated
3 spring onions, finely sliced
an equivalent amount of daikon, peeled and cut into 1cm wide batons
2 tsp Korean fish sauce
2 tbsp Korean dried chilli powder
1 tbsp sugar

Combine the cabbage and salt together in a large bowl, or two, and toss together until all the leaves are well salted. Leave the bowl(s), uncovered, for four hours. If you happen to be passing by give them a quick stir. Fill the bowl(s) with cold water and let the cabbage soak in the brine for one more hour. Try a leaf - it should be very salty, but not so salty it is unpleasant to eat. If you find the latter, drain the cabbage, rinse and soak in cold water again for half an hour or so before trying again.

Drain the cabbage and while it is in the colander push down on the leaves with your hands. You want to squeeze out some of the moisture. You will see the cabbage turns from opaque white to a more translucent clear colour as you squeeze. The cabbage should now be about half its original size, having lost about a third of its weight in salt water.

Put the cabbage into a bowl and add the rest of the ingredients.

Now, using your hands, get right into the cabbage and squish, squelch and squeeze away so the dried chilli powder bleeds red into everything and the garlic, ginger and oniony flavours are mashed into the cabbage and daikon. Take the time to do this thoroughly so that you really work the seasonings into each piece of cabbage. Wear plastic gloves if you don't like the garlicky, onion-y smell on your hands as it can linger a bit (I love it). Definitely wear gloves if you have any kind of cut, even a paper cut!

When it looks and smells delicious, taste a piece and then put the whole lot into an airtight container, seal and leave for up to a week or so, depending on the ambient temperature. Right now in my relatively warm London kitchen, three days is enough.

You'll know its ready when your cabbage changes in taste and takes on a lovely sourness. The chilli might taste a little hotter, and all the flavours will have melded into one - kim chi!

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