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When it comes to Korean cuisine, perhaps no dish is better known worldwide than kimchi. This funky, flavorful staple of the Korean table is a traditional dish of fermented salted vegetables that has been prepared in the Korean peninsula for centuries. While kimchi can have a variety of vegetable bases, including radish or cucumber, the traditional base that comes to mind when you hear this word is cabbage, also known as tongbaechu kimchi or mak kimchi.
Kimchi dates all the way back to around 37 BCE, when Korea was part of what is known as the Three Kingdoms. Historical records show that the people of the Three Kingdoms used jars to ferment vegetables along with other foods, which helped extend the lifetime of various kinds of produce and meat during a time before refrigeration. However, it wasn’t until the 1800s, when Napa cabbage was brought to Korea, that today’s most well-known and widely consumed form of kimchi was born. Today, it’s known around the world for its powerful flavor and reputation for improving gut health.
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While this incredibly flavorful dish might seem challenging to recreate in your own kitchen, kimchi is actually an easy and affordable food to prepare at home, and will keep your fridge well stocked with the perfect fermented addition to everything from fried rice to scrambled eggs. Although there is no one “right” recipe for kimchi—and each Korean household is likely to have their own trademark combination of flavors—with a few simple ingredients you can create an authentic batch entirely your own.
To start, gather your equipment including a 1-gallon glass jar or multiple smaller jars fitted with lids. You’ll also want to use a pair of rubber gloves to protect your hands and keep the kimchi sanitary as you mix. For ingredients, a classic recipe will include Napa cabbage, water, sea salt, sugar, scallions, green onion, daikon radish, fish sauce, garlic, Korean red pepper flakes or chili powder, and ginger root. However, as you get more confident with your kimchi making skills you can start to play around with your ingredient choices.
The quantities of your ingredients will depend entirely on how much kimchi you’re planning to make, and your preferences for spice and other flavors. As a rule of thumb, one napa cabbage will produce about two quart-sized jars of kimchi, while two heads of cabbage will fill up a gallon jar. Prep your chosen vegetables by slicing them up into bite-sized pieces; napa cabbage should be sliced into 2-inch strips, daikon radish peeled and sliced into 1-inch pieces, and scallions cut into 1-inch pieces.
Once you’ve got everything in place, the first step in the kimchi making process is salting your cabbage, which will help draw the moisture out of the vegetable and add salinity to the dish. This can be done through two different methods. The first is to salt your cabbage dry in a bowl, sprinkled with a generous amount of sea salt. Use your hands to mix the cabbage and salt thoroughly, cover the bowl with a heavy pan, and allow it to sit for 2 hours, which will release the water from the cabbage. The second is to give your cabbage a salt water bath by dissolving ½ cup of salt in a large bowl of water and soaking your cabbage for about 4 hours. Following either method, rinse your cabbage thoroughly in a colander, squeeze the excess water from the vegetable, and allow it to drain for about 15 minutes.
Once your cabbage is salted, rinsed, and drained you can start building your kimchi in a large bowl. A traditional combination to use as a jumping off point is 1 head of cabbage, 2 tablespoons fish sauce, 1 teaspoon sugar, 2 tablespoons minced ginger, 2 tablespoons minced garlic, 4 tablespoons Korean red pepper flakes, 1 bunch of green onions, and 1 large daikon radish.
Combine all of your ingredients in a bowl with a couple tablespoons of water and a pinch of salt. Mix thoroughly with your hands, massaging the mixture into each piece of cabbage to guarantee maximum flavor.
Add your kimchi to a jar and firmly press the ingredients towards the bottom so that the liquid covers the top of the mixture and air bubbles are released. Cover with a lid and allow your kimchi to sit for 2-4 days in a cool, room temperature space to ferment. Once a day during fermentation, open the jar to allow the gas to release and press the mixture back the bottom of the jar.
After a few days—once your kimchi has become perfectly fermented to your taste—you’re ready to serve and eat. Store your excess kimchi in the refrigerator for up to a month, after which the kimchi might be too pungent to eat on its own but can still be used to flavor other recipes. Once you’ve got the hang of it, this basic method can be recreated with a number of vegetable bases and flavor combinations. If you prefer fresh flavors over fermented, you can also serve this recipe immediately after mixing; however, it won’t have the trademark funk of fermented kimchi.
Once you’ve become a kimchi master, you can dig into classic dishes like Kimchi Fried Rice, Spicy Beef and Kimchi Stew, and Pork and Kimchi Dumplings, or get creative with some recipes like Kimchi Grilled Cheese, French Fries with Bulgogi and Caramelized Kimchi, and Kimchi Sesame Hummus. Whichever way you choose to incorporate kimchi into your cooking, you’re sure to do your taste buds—and your gut—a huge favor.