Kimchee (also spelled kim chi or gimchi) is a spicy, fermented Korean vegetable dish, used as a side or garnish. It’s eaten with most meals in Korea, and I gather that when deprived of it for more than a few days, Koreans—and others who have gotten the kimchee bug—will suffer serious cravings and withdrawal.
So much so, that when the first Korean went into space two years ago, the government resolved to send up some kimchee with him. Here is an excerpt from the New York Times article about the difficulties of creating “space kimchi”:
“If a Korean goes to space, kimchi must go there, too,” said Kim Sung Soo, a Korea Food Research Institute scientist...
After millions of dollars and years of research, South Korean scientists successfully engineered kimchi... for space travel...
“The key was how to make a bacteria-free kimchi while retaining its unique taste, color and texture,” said Lee Ju Woon at the Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute, who began working on the newfangled kimchi in 2003 with samples provided by his mother.
Ordinary kimchi is teeming with microbes, like lactic acid bacteria, which help fermentation. On Earth they are harmless, but scientists fear they could turn dangerous in space if cosmic rays cause them to mutate. Another problem is that kimchi has a short shelf life, especially when temperatures fluctuate rapidly, as they do in space.
“Imagine if a bag of kimchi starts fermenting and bubbling out of control and bursts all over the sensitive equipment of the spaceship,” Lee said.
Lee’s team found a way to kill the bacteria with radiation while retaining 90 percent of the original taste.
Now, I don’t have any particular craving for kimchee, but I do quite enjoy it. So a couple weeks ago while at the grocery store, I decided to buy some. I was delighted to see that there was an entire refrigerated shelf in the produce department dedicated to the briny delicacy. But when I looked at the prices—five bucks for a mere pint?!—I balked.
I should just make my own, I decided, noting that Napa cabbage (called Chinese cabbage here in Hawai‘i) was just 99 cents a pound. So I came home and looked up recipes on the internet. I read through a bunch, and ended up combining a few. Here’s what I did (recipe at end of post):
I cut up a half a head of Napa cabbage into one-inch squares, sprinkled it with salt, put it into a large bowl, and covered it with cold water.
Next, I add two thinly sliced two carrots,
and then weighted down the veg with a plate and heavy bowl, and put this in the fridge overnight.
The next day, I rinsed off the cabbage and carrots, and put them back in the bowl.
Now for the other flavor-ingredients: Chop up garlic, ginger and green onions.
In addition, you add red pepper flakes or hot chili sauce (I used Shriracha, which we call “rooster sauce”) and sugar:
These get mixed into the vegetables,
and then the whole thing is transferred into a glass jar (in this case, a large pickle jar).
Press down the vegetables with your hand, and add enough cold water to cover them:
Let the jar sit out on the counter for two or three days, to ferment. I let mine go for three days, and tasted it this morning. Not bad; it actually tasted like real live kimchee. Cool.
But I thought it needed more sugar, so I added about two more tablespoons, mixed it up, and put the jar in the fridge. Refrigeration slows the fermentation process, but as the kimchee is still alive, it will continue to ferment.
The additional sugar helped, but I must admit it’s not the most flavorful kimchee I’ve ever had. It needs more umami. So perhaps next time I’ll tweak the recipe a bit—maybe add some fish sauce, which some of the recipes call for? (Do leave a comment if you have any ideas!)
We’re going to have it tonight with the kalua pork that’s slow-roasting right now in the oven.
½ large head Napa/Chinese cabbage, cut into 1” pieces
2 carrots, thinly sliced
4 T salt
enough water to cover the veg
2 T garlic, finely chopped
2 T fresh ginger, finely chopped
2 green onions, coarsely chopped
4 T sugar
1 T hot chili sauce, or 1 t red pepper flakes (use more or less, depending on how spicy you like your food)
1 T fish sauce (optional)
Place the cabbage and carrots in a bowl, and sprinkle with the salt. Add water to cover, and mix well. Weigh the veg down with a plate or bowl, and put in fridge overnight.
The next day, rinse the cabbage and carrots with cold water, and put them back in the bowl. Add all the other ingredients, and mix well.
Transfer it all to a large glass jar, press it down with your hands, and then add enough cold water to cover the vegetables. (Make sure to leave an inch or two of space at the top of the jar, to allow room for the gas that will be created during fermentation.) Let the jar sit at room temperature for two to three days.
Once fermented, store it in the fridge. It will continue to ferment slowly in the refrigerator, becoming increasingly sour and flavorful. As long as you use clean utensils to take out small portions, it should keep for up to a month in the fridge.