Kimchee - salty, sour hot, the new best accompaniment to a pork pie

Kimchee - salty, sour hot, the new best accompaniment to a pork pie

Kimchi (kimchee and various other spelling variations) is cropping up all over social media at the moment, and I'm sure it'll be in the cookery pages imminently. I hereby declare you to be at the cutting edge of the zeitgeist. And if you give making it a go you'll be even more so.

It's simple preserving of vegetables using lacto fermentation, which for some reason isn't really in the British cookery repertoire, we seem to favour sugar and vinegar in our funny old medieval way. But most of the rest of the world does some form of it, using naturally occurring "good" bacteria, in the same way as yoghurt or cheese does (notably sauerkraut). So I think it's no bad thing to get a new technique under your culinary belt. I first had kimchi when Dr Tim Kinnaird made it for one of our cookery school lunches recently and, encouraged by him, decided to give it a whirl, and it's remarkably easy. The end result is a delicious salty, hot (as in spicy), sour pickle - which funnily enough goes BRILLIANTLY with pork pies. It's like pie with mustard but more complex and even better.

What you'll need

Leaves - I recommend starting small to get your confidence up, so, say, a couple of pak choi or a small hipsi (sweetheart) cabbage
Sea salt
Chilli powder, ideally a mild one
Fresh ginger

Non metalic bowl
Container without a metal lid (a small clippable La Parfait jar is perfect)
Gloves (optional)

How to do it

My method is a distillation of dozens of (often conflicting) sources of information in books and the internet. It's definitely not authentically Korean, we'll call it the Imprecise Norfolk Kimchi. But they are all essentially doing much the same thing.

You can probably make kimchi just by reading my headings, but there's more detail below each one.

Salt your veg


So, first take your vegetable. I've made it with Pak Choi and Hispi cabbage so far, but you can do it with anything of that nature, I'm keen to try red cabbage and lovely Thom Eagle of Darsham Nurseries restaurant recently did it with kale "ribs" (the tougher bit running up the centre of a kale leaf). He's also gone bonkers with rhubarb kimchi, but that's chefs for you and we can quietly ignore that for now. Carrots and other vegetables are often added too.

Chop the afore mentioned vegetable and put in a non-metallic bowl and mix in a good sprinkle of sea salt.  A lot of sources say it's important to use sea salt (such as Halen Mon or Malden) as everyday table salt has anti-coagulant chemicals that inhibit fermentation. So I'm happy to go with sea salt. 

There's a lot of imprecision about the quantity of salt, but the salt isn't preserving the leaves, it's drawing out moisture, and adding flavour, so a good sprinkle is precise enough I think! 

Leave the bowl for  a couple of hours, stirring (with something non metallic) occasionally. You'll start to see the contents gradually becoming wetter and floppier as the salt starts to cause moisture to come out of the leaves.

Give the water that comes out a taste. One source I read said the water should taste of salt, but not "surprisingly" so. Which I rather liked, I think unsurprisingly salty is a good thing to aim for.

Make a tasty chilli/garlic/ginger paste

The favouring of kimchi is essentially chilli, garlic and ginger (and all the better for that). There's a lot of hoo-ha about the chilli powder, which should authentically be Korean. I haven't got any of that, although it is easily available on line and at good Asian supermarkets. I happened to have a fairly mild Mexican chipotle powder, and very nice it is too. 

If you use standard supermarket chilli powder you'll probably want to use less of the resulting paste with your cabbage, for heat reasons. And almost all standard chilli powders have cumin in, so be aware that you're getting that flavour too.

Blend about a desert spoon of chilli powder with a small knob of fresh ginger (equivalent to around a level teaspon) and a clove of garlic. One of those mini food processors is excellent for the job, but a good sharp knife or a pestle and mortar would work well too.

Taste a little of the paste to get a sense of how much heat you've got - we're all different in our heat tolerances. Incidentally, the paste is a very acceptable condiment in itself, we had a little left over with some cheese on toast and were very taken with it.

Mix the paste in with the cabbage

Use a little, mix in well and taste. You can always add more but you can't take it out. The hardcore kimchi makers say you should do this with your hands (and if you are authentically using quartered chinese cabbage, say, you will have to to get it between the leaves), but beware that any little paper cuts on your fingers, combined with salt and chilli is a fairly energising combination. You might also want to wear some catering style gloves - and definitely don't rub your eyes. All that salt and chilli - ouch.

Pack into a jar and submerge


The key thing to think of at this point is that you need to get all your leaves submerged. The lacto fermentation preservation is anaerobic (without oxygen) and any leaves in contact with the air could potentially turn nasty, in the worst case scenario become contaminated with botulism. Submerge.

You'll have generated lots of liquid, but if you need to add a little water. Pack all the leaves down as much as possible. You definitely don't want air bubbles. A wooden rolling pin is a potential ramming down tool, if someone kind hasn't made and sent you a hand turned kimchi press (see below).

Keep them submerged

I've found leaves (even floppy ones) to be springy, wilful blighters. As you press one side down the other side will insist on coming up. So you need some mechanism to keep them safely packed down below water level. I've successfully used the silicon strainer from my gravy separator, but that put the gravy separator out of action. I intend to find some nice flat Norfolk pebbles and boil them to sterilise them, but that hasn't happened yet. So my current submerging mechanism is an unromantic zip lock plastic bag, partially filled with water squeezed into the top of the kimchi jar. 

Ferment and burp

You could eat a bit of the kimchi right away, but the idea is to do the lacto fermentation thing to preserve it. So leave it in the kitchen for a few days (I'm favouring five for mine). As it ferments it will generate gas, so it's important to unclip the jar to release the pressure. There are dire tales of exploding jars, and you really don't want that.

You'll notice a strong sour smell develop when you burp the jar. This is a good thing, no matter what the rest of the household says.

After your chosen number of days, pop the jar in the fridge to slow the fermentation. And eat.

Post Script

After I put my Kimchee making on Instagram, an unexpected parcel arrived and lo and behold the lovely and  talented contemporary Suffolk woodturner Andy Coates had made me my own kimchee press. I love this very much.