It’s probably just me, but I think cabbage gets totally overlooked as a vegetable. It’s like that shy girl in the back of the class who you’ve never really noticed and then one day, she raises her hand and you figure out she’s pretty much a genius and it would probably be wise for you to make her your friend. That’s cabbage to me. It has been culturally adapted to just about every cuisine in the world and it tastes totally different but totally awesome everywhere.
Koreans, I think, have always seen the true potential of cabbage and have been making kimchi with it for centuries. Traditionally, kimchi has been made, then stored in big pots, buried in the ground, and allowed to ferment for a really long time. In case I’ve lost you already, kimchi is a deliciously fermented, spicy “condiment” that Koreans eat with everything. Literally, they eat it with every meal: breakfast, lunch and dinner. Typically, kimchi is made in November and December, where the matriarchs take a whole day (sometimes more) to make their family’s supply of winter kimchi. They, then, store it in their kimchi refrigerator. Yes, they have a totally separate refrigerator, set at a very specific temperature, just for kimchi. Because, apparently, the whole “bury the pot” practice has kinda fallen to the wayside. Some families make up to 100 cabbages worth of kimchi. But, I think about 10 cabbages worth is a more normal amount, which I am told will last a family of four approximately 6 months.
The new kimchi can be eaten right away, however it grows in flavor as it ferments, so waiting is preferred. Families will have a “back stock” and will actually be eating the kimchi they made a few years ago. I guess it could be considered similar to canning, in that way.
We got the chance to experience the art of kimchi, as we had a sweet friend and her mom volunteer to teach us. As I said before, Koreans see the true potential of cabbage and I think that starts at the seed. I found the biggest cabbage I’ve ever seen and obviously had to take a picture with it. It was literally the size of a watermelon.
Back to the lesson though. You start with raw cabbage and cut it up into pieces (I guess I should also note, we were making spring kimchi, which is made with smaller cabbage, is a faster process and eaten fresh). The next step, it was emphasized repeatedly in excited Korean, was super important. You have to kill the cabbage with salt. Killing is key here. And, apparently, the type of salt you use will change the overall flavor of your finished product. We were using solar salt (the very best choice, according to our hostess).
Once you salt the cabbage, it needs to sit for 2 hours for spring kimchi (12 hours for winter kimchi). In the meantime, we went to a local coffeeshop for bingsu, another Korean favorite.
When we arrived back, the cabbage was dead, rinsed, and ready to be coated. The recipe consists of many ingredients and in many different forms of measure. Let me just hit the high notes for you: baby shrimp, fish sauce, plum wine, corn syrup, Korean red pepper paste, onion or apple, and sesame oil to list a few. Then, all of this gets blended up into a thick paste and spread over the now dead cabbage.
As weird as it all sounds, it ends up being really good. And surprisingly good for you! Recent studies have shown that in the fermented kimchi, the probiotic benefits outweigh that of which you find in yogurt. So, steam some rice, get some kimchi, and chow down Korean style!