Kim chi is one of those dishes that you can find in decent quality at any store, but will be blown away by when you actually taste an authentic, homemade version. We’re lucky to live in Santa Clara because it is kind of considered the unofficial Korean Mecca of the South Bay. You could spend a lifetime on the two blocks of El Camino between San Tomas and Lawrence Expressways and still be unable to sample every Korean restaurant, market and karaoke bar.
There are even a couple “side dish” markets that specialize only in take out ban chan (kim chi and all the other Korean sides like radish, cucumber, fish cake, etc.). For restaurant ban chan, we love Sui Tofu. Whereas some places will buy their ban chan components in bulk, Sui makes every delicious bit from scratch, most notably their namesake tofu. The kim chi here is ultra-fresh, crunchy and fermented to perfection.
My brother Dean makes his own kim chi at home and we are always pinching some of his stash, but I figured eventually you gotta get high off your own supply so I began researching some weeks ago to cobble together my own version. Two sites in particular that provided invaluable guidance were Anna’s Korean Kitchen and Dr. Ben Kim’s Blog. The basics are pretty consistent: salt/cure cabbage to leech out moisture, mix with fish sauce/shrimp paste, garlic, ginger, spring onions, daikon and Korean red pepper flakes, then ferment at least a day at room temperature before storing in the fridge. You probably want to embark on this journey towards the early part of the day because ideally you want the cabbage to cure for a minimum three hours, during which time you can prep all your other ingredients.
Or prep your ingredients, cure your cabbage, catch a movie and come back in time to throw your kim chi together.
There are simpler recipes, but the fancy shit is made with a whole head of cabbage and uses a goop called “pui” made of water and sweet rice powder to form the kim chi paste. It is nice and sticky and apparently aids in the fermentation. For this go ’round I used this method. Also, we had these sweet, fragrant red spring onions left over from the SF Ferry Building Farmer’s Market, so I used those instead of regular spring onions.
Ingredients:For cured cabbage 1 whole head napa cabbage 1/2 cup kosher salt (for cure) For kim chi paste 1/4 cup sweet rice powder 1 Tbsp kosher salt 1/4 cup premium fish sauce 3 whole stalks spring onions, washed and cut in 2 inch pieces 3 leeks (completely optional – I just had these lying around about to go bad) 1 Tsbp. minced ginger 2 heaping tsp. chopped garlic 1 medium Korean radish (daikon), peeled and cut into 2 inch julienne 1/2 cup Korean hot chili pepper flakes
Before you do anything, prep your cabbage. Wash the cabbage thoroughly and dry, then cut a slit about 1 inch deep down the middle of the base, just enough so you can stick your thumbs in there. Pull apart to separate the head into two hemispheres. Take one wedge and again make a slit one inch deep in the middle and split that piece in half so you have two quarters. Repeat for the other half.
Using the 1/2 cup of salt reserved for cure, liberally sprinkle salt in between each leaf, dividing evenly amongst the four quarters until all salt I s used up. Set aside, unrefrigerated, for at least 3 hours and preferably up to 8 hours.
In a medium saucepan, combine two cups of water with the sweet rice powder and mix constantly on medium high heat until boiling. It should be a thick, goopy consistency. Turn off and allow to cool. This is now your pui. Rhymes with gooey – and it is exactly that.
Prep all your fresh ingredients now: peel and mince ginger, chop garlic, peel and julienne the daikon, cut spring onions. In the pics you’ll see an extra fresh ingredient, which are excess leeks we had that would be going bad in the coming week. I cleaned and blanched them in boiling water so I could add them to the kim chi paste as bonus fermented goodness. Combine all the kim chi paste ingredient sin the the cooled pui and mix well. Note: Make sure you get the large pepper flakes, not the powdered version!
After cabbage has sat for required time (up to eight hours as mentioned before), thoroughly wash each quarter a couple times in cold water, making sure to wash very well in between leaves. Squeeze gently and try to drain out as much water as possible.
Stuff the kim chi paste liberally between the cabbage leaves, then place the cabbage (smalls leaves facing up) into a large jar or other container. You can use a very large square Tupperware container, but a large-mouthed medium size jar is ideal. Use any excess kim chi paste to cover the cabbage, but leave enough air space for expansion for during fermentation.
Store in a cool, dark area (like your pantry) for 1 to 4 days, depending on the level of fermentation you prefer. After fermentation, place in fridge and you can begin eating within days. The kim chi will continue to ferment and get more sour, but the fridge slows it down. It will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks.
You can play with the kim chi paste ingredients to tweak the flavor to your liking. The version pictured here calls for 1 cup of pepper flakes, which is just too much. I reduced to 1/2 cup for a future version and the pepper flavor still dominated, so I think I will stick with 1/4 cup going forward. I also added a pinch more fish sauce because I like it more pungent and it worked out well.
From my observation so far, 3 days of pantry fermentation followed by 4 days of fridge storage yields a very tasty and crunchy product. I prefer it really sour, so it was after a full week in the fridge that I really enjoyed the results.