The Kimchi Challenge: A Cookbook and a Taste Test
Back when I had roommates, my stinky jars of kimchi tucked into the nether reaches of our refrigerator would elicit an assortment of negative remarks. If I happened to be eating it when they walked in the door I’d hear shouts from the hallway, “Is that you STINKING up the kitchen?” I’d nod my head as I continued to eat the spicy cabbage while leaning over the sink. I wondered why they didn’t love it as much as I did. As their dislike maintained, so grew my fondness. They didn’t like it, and I didn't care.
The idea began simply: to try as many store-bought kimchi’s that I could get my hands on. I wanted a range of price and taste. My goal was to figure out what my taste buds responded to the most. I bought a plastic tub at my local dumpling shop, a jar from a Chinatown market, the fancy Brooklyn-made version from the local cheese shop, a tiny clamshell from my favorite organic Japanese deli at the Essex market, and a jar from Whole Foods. One by one I made my way through my purchases and scribbled down my impressions.
Here they are in order of best to least best:
- The tiny clamshell from my favorite Japanese deli in the Essex market. All they would tell me was that it came from a restaurant in Sunnyside. It was spicy and tangy with plenty of crunch.
- The jar from Chinatown. This is the one I traditionally buy, and I love it. The only reason it’s second is because I think they use additives, and ingredients far far from organic.
- Tied: The jar from Whole Foods and the fancy one made in Brooklyn, they may even have been the same one. These were good in a pinch, but I thought they were both too acidic and needed a better balance of sweet; also, neither were spicy enough. The Brooklyn version left their cabbage whole. This may very well be a traditional way to make it, but tugging out a giant leaf of cabbage and then trying to cut it was messy and unpleasant.
- The plastic tub from the local dumpling shop. There was a scant amount of flavor and even the color was pale. This is another one I would buy only in an emergency.
Perhaps by now you have gleaned that I am a bit of a kimchi connoisseur? With all this effort in eating kimchi, I decided it was time to make my own. I turned to “The Kimchi Cookbook,” by Lauryn Chun, published by Ten Speed Press. Chun, the founder of a retail line of kimchi called Mother-in-Law’s Kimchi had learned from her mother and grandmother. I was a Jewish girl ready to dive into my pretend Korean heritage.
The Kimchi Cookbook by Lauryn Chun.
The Kimchi Cookbook is broken up seasonally. In addition to straight kimchi, the cookbook includes recipes that incorporate kimchi as a sub-ingredient, even one for a kimchi grapefruit margarita. Um, hello? I flipped through the bright pages, evenly mixed with recipes and lush close-up photographs where I could see every fleck of chili.
I settled on two of the easier sounding recipes: chive and daikon kimchi. Korean chili pepper flakes, called for in both recipes, was one of the I-thought-it-would-be easy-but-turns-out-it’s-hard-to-source ingredients. My shopping list also included anchovy sauce (jeotgal), salted shrimp (saeujot) and sweet rice flour, along with standard items like kosher salt, sugar and the vegetables.
Chive kimchi. Photo by James/Flickr.
Hong Kong Market in Chinatown is a massive two story building on Hester Street between Mott and Bowery. While I locked my bike up to the parking sign, I smiled with an easy confidence that I could get everything on my list there. Not so fast. I found all the produce I needed and even the sweet rice flour, but the chili, shrimp and anchovy sauce were missing. I asked a man in a red shirt and he referred me to a shop on Canal Street. He spelled it out for me: KanMan. I repeated it in my head on my way to the register.
KanMan was a much smaller version of Hong Kong Market. The sauce and condiment aisle was dense with options that lured me in. Did I need this chive oil and XO sauce? Silly questions, into my basket they went. But no luck with the remaining ingredients. I asked a man plugging in numbers into an adding machine if they had what I was looking for. When I said the word, “Korean,” he laughed.
“Do you know where I might find it?” I asked.
He mentioned the “Big Asia” Market. I told him I had come from there. I asked again: “Is there anywhere else?”
Kimchi market, aka heaven. Photo by Martin Roell/Flickr.
Dejected I walked out of the store and did the first thing I could think of. I bought a fresh coconut and drank loudly from the straw while I stood in the shade wondering what to do next. Then I called a Chinese friend who is an excellent cook, and knows her spices well.
“Where do I go,” I moaned.
“Hold on,” she said.
Two minutes later she texted me the answer: Kalustyan's. I clicked on the link. It was a spice market on Lexington Avenue at 28th Street. I stashed the coconut in my bike basket and cycled north.
Calm, cool and organized, stepping into Kalustyan’s was the polar opposite of all of Chinatown. I gazed up at row upon row of curries, cinnamons, and chili’s. If I could use it in a dish, this place had to have it. I wandered the fragrant aisles, picking up clear envelopes of herbs and spices. I found the sumac I needed for research on another cookbook, along with the final three ingredients I needed. I even picked up some freshly made hummus, and two shortbread cookies coated in powdered sugar. The cookies would hold me over until dinner.
Back in my apartment I stuffed the huge bags of ingredients into the middle shelf of my refrigerator. I opened the cookbook to the chive recipe. I began there for two reasons: it was shorter and I could eat it sooner. The chive recipe only had three ingredients; it was my perfect first recipe.
The recipes are easy to follow with instructions on how long it will take to prep, how long it must sit and how long it should be good for--which sounds funny, don't fermented things last forever? Isn't that the point?
The huge jar of concentrated anchovy paste looked like the stuff that was making the rounds as petri dish meat. The book called for a sludge made of actual anchovies that had been steeped in stinky stuff for days. My jar was one solid color, pale pink, and it looked like I could spackle a wall with it. Never one to fear using the wrong ingredient, I plunged ahead. I cut up my chives and whipped together my ingredients. I scraped the mix into a Ziploc bag, removed the excess air, folded it up and stowed it on top of my refrigerator. Later I discovered some short cuts to these weird sauces on Chun's website.
This isn't my kimchi, the photos on my phone were lost, along with my phone. Photo by KT_Ries/Flickr.
Then I moved on to the daikon recipe. The most interesting instruction listed in the daikon recipe were these instructions: “Using a pairing knife, trim the radishes and scrape away the outer grimy layer. Do not peel the entire outer layer of the radish; the skin is needed to maintain firmness while pickling.” I followed Chun’s directions to the letter.
The most fun I had was mixing together the flavors: salted shrimp, ginger, sugar, chili flakes, rice flour porridge. The rice flour, Chun writes, “acts as a binding agent and makes the seasoning more viscous.” It also helps offset the bitterness of the daikon. Stirring up the rice flour, a cloudy and thick mixture melded to my spoon, it looked like mochi, and I felt like I was in a science lab.
After I mixed together the daikon and the seasonings I split it up into two Tupperware containers and set them next to my chives. I waited. Each day I glanced up, taking in the liquid ratio (which rose almost to the lid) and checked to ensure the lids remained tight. Each subsequent day a foul sock like odor greeted me when I opened the front door. As its bloom increased so did my excitement.
The day arrived when my fermented stars were ready to be tasted. The chive dish would be a perfect compliment to a big steak or thin bulgogi. I don’t eat meat that much at home so I had it alongside a kale salad. The slender chives were overpowered from the anchovy paste and next time I’ll use less. Now, the daikon. The daikon was perfect in every way. Crunchy, spicy, tangy and so fragrant. It was better than anything store bought, and this was the goal. I had done it.
Summer is here for awhile, but in the fall I'm looking forward to making Chun’s butternut squash kimchi, in the meantime, where’s my cocktail shaker? Margarita kimchi cocktail anyone?
Daikon kimchi. Photo byJulia Frost/Flickr.