Ask any native or transplanted Koreans about kimchee, 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, kimchee 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 (Korean barbecue), served with steamed rice for a humble meal or as an accompaniment to ramyun (Korean noodles), nibbled between slurps or added to the bowl for extra zest. Indeed, kimchee can perk up just about anything, even a plate of bacon and eggs.
But to think of it merely as a condiment is a mistake. Kimchee 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 flavorful vegetables.
Lauryn Chun, who owns Mother-in-Law's, a company that makes kimchee, is adamant on the subject.
"I want people to know that cooking with kimchee is incredible," she said. "Especially older or aged kimchee. Cooking it releases kimchee's sweetness, allowing deep, mellow umami flavors to shine."
The best example is jigae (or chigae), a hearty traditional kimchee soup in which pork belly and kimchee simmer together until the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts. Chun, who is also the author of the "The Kimchi Cookbook," makes a vegetarian version that uses butter and olive oil instead of pork to enhance the flavor, producing what she described as a "great vegetal complexity." She also sautés kimchee with brown butter and capers, for a twist on the French classic sole meunire.
You need not make your own kimchee 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. (And they buy a lot of it. Per capita consumption is estimated to be at least 40 pounds a year.)
In the United States, ready-made kimchee is more widely available now than ever before. You will find it in Korean groceries, of course, and at health food stores, but many supermarkets stock kimchee too. It is sold refrigerated, usually right next to the tofu.
There are hundreds of variations of kimchee, developed centuries ago, all involving lactic fermentation. Every family in Korea used to make its own kimchee, and neighbors 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 flavor.
After a few days at room temperature, the vegetables are floating in a fizzy brine and the kimchee is ready to use. This fresh kimchee 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, kimchee is stored in glass or plastic, and there are special kimchee 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" kimchee that is not fermented (or barely fermented), which is eaten like salad. Good fresh kimchee is crisp, slightly acidic and tingly, but not as sour as a vinegar pickle. In the United States, 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 kimchee 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 kimchee in the fridge, and no matter what was served for dinner there had to be rice and kimchee on the table every night, too. Likewise, his bento-style lunch box was always packed with kimchee 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 said. "But kimchee has always been quintessential comfort food for me, so I loosened up." He has since perfected a kimchee paella, cooked in the fireplace at Camino.
"My paella is basically Korean fried rice turned Spanish," he said. "Everyone loves it." At home you can do something as simple as topping a hot dog with kimchee, 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 kimchee, buy several types so you can taste the differences: chopped napa cabbage; whole leaf cabbage; green onion; cubed daikon; and white kimchee, which is made without hot pepper. Each has its own distinct character.
Always keep kimchee 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, kimchee is good for you. Like yogurt, it is probiotic, aiding digestion and strengthening the immune system.
The real reason to love kimchee, however, is for the magnificent flavor it imparts. It's a brilliant addition to your arsenal.
'Instant' Kimchee With Greens and Bean Sprouts
Time: 10 minutes
Yield: About 4 cups
1 teaspoon Korean anchovy sauce or other fish sauce
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon sugar
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon grated ginger
2 teaspoons Korean red pepper flakes (gochugaru)
1 teaspoon Korean red pepper paste (gochujang), thinned with 1 teaspoon water
1/2 pound mung bean sprouts
6 ounces tender mustard greens or spinach, cut in 1-inch ribbons
Pinch of sea salt or kosher salt
1. Put anchovy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, garlic, ginger, gochugaru and gochujang in a salad bowl and stir together.
2. Add bean sprouts and greens and sprinkle lightly with sea salt. Toss well with fingers, massaging seasoning into vegetables to coat well.
3. Leave mixture to temper for 5 minutes and transfer to a serving bowl.
Kimchee Soup (Jigae)
Time: 40 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
1 pound fresh pork belly, cut in 1/2-inch pieces
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon grated ginger
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon fish sauce
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cups kimchee, aged if possible, squeezed dry and chopped
3 tablespoons Korean red pepper paste (gochujang)
1 tablespoon Korean red pepper flakes (gochugaru)
1 cup kimchee juice
8 cups water (for a richer soup, use chicken, pork or beef broth) 8 ounces soft or silken tofu, cut in large cubes
8 scallions or Korean chives, chopped, for garnish
1. Put pork belly in a bowl. Add garlic, ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil and fish sauce. Toss well to coat and let marinate for 10 minutes.
2. Set a heavy-bottomed soup pot over medium heat. Melt butter, then add pork belly mixture and let it cook gently for 5 minutes. Add onion and cook, stirring, until softened, about 5 minutes. Turn heat to medium high and add kimchee, gochujang and gochugaru. Let mixture simmer for 2 minutes.
3. Add kimchee juice and water (or broth, if using) and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a brisk simmer and cook for 20 minutes. Taste broth and adjust seasoning.
4. Just before serving, add tofu and stir gently to combine. When tofu is heated through, ladle into bowls and garnish with scallions.
Kimchee Noodle Cake
Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1/2 pound rice noodles, fettuccine width
Salt and pepper
1 cup kimchee, any kind, squeezed dry and roughly chopped
1 tablespoon dried shrimp, chopped
1/2 cup chopped scallions or Korean chives
1/4 cup Korean red pepper paste (gochujang)
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 eggs, lightly beaten
Cilantro sprigs, for garnish
1. Put rice noodles in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Let soak until softened, about 10 minutes, then rinse with cold water and drain well. Transfer noodles to a mixing bowl. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
2. Add kimchee, dried shrimp, scallions, gochujang, sesame oil and sesame seeds to bowl and toss well to coat.
3. Set a heavy 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add vegetable oil and heat until wavy. Slip in noodle mixture and cover. Turn heat to medium and cook for 5 minutes, until bottom is browned and crisp.
4. Season eggs with salt and pepper and pour over noodles. Tilt skillet to distribute eggs evenly over bottom of pan. Cover and cook until eggs are just set, 4 to 5 minutes. Invert cake onto a cutting board or round platter. Let cool slightly, then cut into wedges, garnish with cilantro and serve.
And To Drink...
Korean food, particularly dishes pungent with kimchee, red pepper paste and fish sauce, is difficult to pair with wine. Many wines are overwhelmed by the depth and power of these flavors. Yet some can work well with these dishes, particularly if they are lightly sweet. Demi-sec Vouvray, in which the light sweetness is bolstered by a bracing acidity, is one good option. German spatlese riesling, a delicate wine held together by a similar balance of sugar and acid, is another. Fruity red wines with a touch of oak, like a crianza Rioja or a restrained California pinot noir, can also go well with Korean food. Surprisingly, some flavor authorities caution against beer, a popular favorite, with spicy food, arguing that carbonation intensifies the heat. You can have the science. I'll take the beer.
- ERIC ASIMOV
© 2015 New York Times News Service