ASK ANY native or transplanted Koreans about kimchi and you will be told that it is the very backbone of Korean cuisine. It is a cultural necessity, eaten enthusiastically at every meal, and daily life is unimaginable without it.
For the uninitiated, kimchi is a tangy, pungent preserved vegetable preparation, like sauerkraut. To describe it only as a fermented vegetable mixture or a pickle, though, is hardly fair. This is Korean soul food.
It’s commonly used in traditional cuisine as a condiment or side dish with grilled foods, served with steamed rice for a humble meal or as an accompaniment to ramyun, nibbled between slurps or added to the bowl for extra zest.
But to think of it merely as a condiment is a mistake. Kimchi is also a magic ingredient with many possibilities, and home cooks would do well to explore them. Adding it to soups, stews, noodles or rice dishes gives them more dimension. It’s like adding a layer of very flavourful vegetables.
Lauryn Chun, who owns Mother-in-Law’s, a company that makes kimchi, is adamant on the subject. “I want people to know that cooking with kimchi is incredible,” she says. “Especially older or aged kimchi. Cooking it releases kimchi’s sweetness, allowing deep, mellow umami flavours to shine.”
The best example is jigae, a hearty traditional kimchi soup in which pork belly and kimchi simmer together until the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts. Chun makes a vegetarian version that uses butter and olive oil instead of pork to enhance the flavour, producing what she described as a “great vegetal complexity”.
You need not make your own kimchi to cook with it, though doing so is a rewarding project. Feel free to just buy some. That is what modern South Koreans, especially city dwellers, do.
There are hundreds of variations of kimchi, developed centuries ago, all involving lactic fermentation. Every family in Korea used to make its own kimchi, and neighbours helped one another. At harvest time, groups of women would gather for several days of communal chopping and brining.
The process is relatively simple: a vegetable, typically napa cabbage or a daikon-type radish, is first salted then seasoned with a paste of garlic, ginger and medium-hot red pepper. A bit of sugar may be added to help the fermenting; usually some sort of seafood, often oyster or anchovy, is introduced for the same reason, and to deepen the flavour.
After a few days at room temperature, the vegetables are floating in a fizzy brine and the kimchi is ready to use. This fresh kimchi is lively and bright tasting.
Originally, it was then packed into giant clay vessels for long-term storage, sealed and buried for future use, meant to last the entire winter.
Nowadays, kimchi is stored in glass or plastic, and there are special kimchi refrigerators designed to keep it at the perfect temperature. Cooling slows down the fermentation, but does not stop it; the live bacteria continue to contribute to a more mature, sour taste.
There is also ‘instant’ kimchi that is not fermented (or barely fermented), which is eaten like salad. Good fresh kimchi is crisp, slightly acidic and tingly, but not as sour as a vinegar pickle.
In the US, adventurous food lovers of all stripes have adopted it quite readily, and chefs have long felt free to play with it.
The chef Russ Moore, whose mother was Korean, was more reluctant to introduce kimchi and other Korean staples into the cooking he does at Camino, the Mediterranean restaurant in Oakland, California, where he is a co-owner. His mother always kept a supply of kimchi in the fridge, and no matter what was served for dinner there had to be rice and kimchi on the table every night, too. Likewise, his bento-style lunch box was always packed with kimchi and pork chops; it seemed normal to him until he noticed that other children had peanut butter sandwiches.
“I used to be strict about not mixing east and West on my menu,” he says. “But kimchi has always been quintessential comfort food for me, so I loosened up.” He has since perfected a kimchi paella, cooked in the fireplace at Camino.
“My paella is basically Korean fried rice turned Spanish,” he says. “Everyone loves it.”
At home, you can do something as simple as topping a hot dog with kimchi, or layering it into a Reuben or a grilled cheese sandwich. Tuck it into a baguette to make a cross-cultural banh mi. Cooking it more thoroughly, though, is eminently worthwhile, and the results are utterly delicious.
When you are shopping for kimchi, buy several types so you can taste the differences: chopped napa cabbage; whole leaf cabbage; green onion; cubed daikon; and white kimchi, which is made without hot pepper. Each has its own distinct character.
Always keep kimchi refrigerated and when opening a jar, contain your excitement. Hold it over the sink and twist the lid off slowly. That fizzy brine contains carbon dioxide; just like champagne, it’s apt to be explosive.
As a bonus, kimchi is good for you. Like yogurt, it is probiotic, aiding digestion and strengthening the immune system.
The real reason to love kimchi, however, is for the magnificent flavour it imparts. It’s a brilliant addition to your arsenal.