Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Kimchi, America's Favorite Side Dish

Kimchi is a spicy, fermented cabbage side dish that I became acquainted with during my time in Korea and has remained a part of my diet ever since. There are a quite a few varieties of Kimchi. The types of kimchi were created as a practical matter in the time before effective refrigeration and food storage and is based partly on the availability of seasonal vegetables and the weather. Kimchi is a popular and traditional side dish in Asia but for those outside of that region it can be, like the rapper who pretends to ride a horse, an acquired taste.


Relax. You don't have to be a "foodie" to enjoy kimchi. It isn't some odd, esoteric concoction that you eat only because it is hip, unique or have to endure once or twice because everyone is talking about it. One of the worst things to happen to kimchi was it being "discovered" by yuppies in America during the late 1980s. The costs of the ingredients skyrocketed, quality suffered and making it from scratch became more of a luxury than a must have condiment in our refrigerator. A few years ago crop failures of the main ingredient caused a crisis that required the Korean Government to take action.

Glass jars are best for storage in refrigerator

Like many foods foreign to the American experience there are a lot of unsubstantiated, unscientific claims attributed to eating kimchi. These are mostly cultural in origin, perpetuated today as selling points and continuing traditions. Plenty of  the restaurants not owned by large chains commonly have signs posted declaring the unrealistic and miraculous health benefits of various dishes. Disappointingly, this is endemic among much of the advertising for consumer products also. Online you can find even more information claiming all sorts of woo-woo magical powers attributed to all sorts of foods so don't get excited. Cabbage and red pepper are not parts of the formula for the ancient Asian mystic secret of good health, virility and long life. It does not "clean the blood", "revitalize the spirits", "strengthen the kidneys" or anything else beyond the basic nutritional value of the ingredients which are not insubstantial. As example of the questionable common knowledge attributed to some foods: An ingredient used for more than a century as a flavoring in drinks touted as a natural health miracle with wondrous properties eventually was discovered to be a very  powerful natural carcinogen. The deleterious effects where ignored or unknown for years because of the power of superstition, folk remedies and the criminal carelessness of homeopathy. Only trust peer reviewed science, kids. 

The Wall of Kimchi at a local market. One of them.
There can be a lot of salt found in the recipe for kimchi. If you have special dietary needs make sure you never trust the hip, word-of-mouth promotion or self-serving public relations and hard sell of any food stuffs. Do some research, read up and be informed. While I can't grant any special health properties to kimchi I've eaten it when congested. From anecdotal experience, the spiciness make me feel better, drains and opens up the sinuses. But so will chomping on a jalapeno,  gnawing on a lozenge or rubbing Mentholatum grease on my chest. Nothing magic there, just the body's normal and natural responses.

If you have wanted to try kimchi or Korean food then as a start I suggest visiting the Korean restaurants in your city. The All-You-Can-Eat BBQ is enjoying increasingly popularity but that may be over-whelming for the uninitiated. You can cook Korean meals yourself but if unfamiliar with the style rather than going through a trial and error stage find out what the authentic dish tastes like first. As a way of easing into a world of foreign cuisine try the lunch menus during the day at Korean restaurants. They are simpler, priced reasonably and you won't have to deal with the crowds, wait time and hassle of the evening dinner rush and cooking the meal yourself at the table, though that can be a fun experience.

Most places serve a large spread of side dishes with even the smallest lunch menu item so don't be surprised by the amounts you receive. If you don't like wasting food get a to-go tray when done (if the establishment supports that, some don't because of people that take a yard when given an inch). One of those side dishes will usually contain at least one variety of kimchi. Keep in mind that a lot of these dishes are not created from frozen, processed food that is microwaved and slapped on a plate following some corporate franchise photo-template of what a perfect and homogenized dish will look like. Quality of supplies change daily as expected with fresh items so don't be discouraged if something isn't up to your expectations or doesn't look like you think it should from your experiences in the freezer aisle of the local market. Asian meals have a lot of vegetables in them but eating an authentically prepared dish will very much remind you that meat is made from animals.

Babimbap and side dishes
If you want kimchi regularly at home there are a lot of good cook books available and even recipes for it online. You can eat it as is out of the jar or use it in cooking. Heck, make up your own ideas. Browse a market that carries a variety and decide what size and type of kimchi you want. Many Asian and American markets sell kimchi but it is a Korean specialty so try Korean markets first. I prefer the cabbage that is pre-cut in the jar because it is more convenient to use and less messy. I also enjoy the large radish kimchi. The type you get is based on what you are going to use it for. FYI, when cooked kimchi often gets spicier, via reduction.

Most modern American grocery stores keep a brand or two of small jars of kimchi in the cold aisle, usually by the tofu. These brands are okay but not what I prefer. I personally find the most typical brand found in a regular grocery store to be pale, watery, lacking in heat and tasting strongly of salt and vinegar. A trip to a Korean or Asian market is your best bet for quality kimchi. Just compare the rich colors of the kimchi made for a knowledgeable and particular customer base and the kind you find in a American chain grocery. You can easily see the difference. Unlike many food products in this instance the color is an indicator of manufacture and quality. I also appreciate kimchi in a glass jar over plastic for storage purposes.
 



Kimchi prep at home:
You've bought a jar of kimchi, now what do you do? Like most people you are probably just going to put in the refrigerator to keep it cold. Sure, you want to do that, eventually. But first you might want to prepare your kimchi by letting it ferment a while before putting it away. Don't worry, it's easy to do though this will be a process that should take overnight. You can eat the kimchi right away after you buy it but letting the contents ferment a bit will improve even the taste of the grocery store brands. I recommend tasting some for a before and after comparison.

Leaving food out overnight is something you have to decide for yourself if you want to do. My wife is a native Korean and we have both prepped kimchi this way for nearly 25 years without ill effects. Some of the ingredients are stored for months without turning. This is how she learned to prepare it growing up in Korea. She is from a generation that still makes almost everything from scratch. Again, up to you.
  1. Before retiring for the day place your kimchi jar in a plastic bag and place it in a sink. If your sink is the type that stains then you will want to ensure any liquids (a brine which will be red in color) go directly into the drain.  
  2. Loosen lid. Loosely tie up bag. Kimchi is very aromatic so be prepared for that to permeate the area.
  3. Leave in sink overnight.
  4. In the morning you may notice bubbles in the jar and swelling of the contents. Some juice will probably have overflowed. This is from the contents fermenting. Tip a bit of the juice out.
  5. Tighten lid firmly.
  6. Rinse exterior of jar thoroughly and dry off.  
  7. Put in refrigerator (I suggest on a paper towel or plate to catch any future drips).
If you sampled the kimchi yesterday when you got home do it again today. You should definitely notice a difference in taste and texture. Kimchi has a very strong presence but keeping the lid tight and exterior of the jar clean should prevent any odors being absorbed by the other contents of the refrigerator.



If you don't want the kimchi to ferment in the manner I described then make sure you drain some of the liquid from the jar before you put it away. Even kept cold right from the store the contents will ferment a bit over time and the fluid may leak out into the refrigerator


The uses for kimchi in cooking is varied. Other than the many Asian recipes it is traditionally used for I put it on almost anything. Burgers, grilled cheese, hot dogs, burritos, pizza (after I remove the pie from the oven, some like it baked into the pizza) and anything I can think of to spice up the meal. There is a place in San Diego that makes a butt-kicking bulgogi with kimchi burrito and some serious kimchi fries.

Read more about Korea's side dish online here: Kimchi at Wikipedia.


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