Oppan Kimchi Style!
January 04, 2013
Now that PSY has introduced the world to Korean pop music and Samsung has become a major player in the tech market, many Americans have become aware of South Korea as a vibrant cultural and economic powerhouse. Korean cuisine, on the other hand, isn't as well-known as its Chinese and Japanese counterparts. The same could have been said of Thai and Vietnamese cuisines a few years ago as well, but they've made the jump from foodie favorites to mainstream popularity. I think it’s time for the greater American public to discover the joys of Korean cuisine, and to do so, one must first learn to appreciate kimchi.
Kimchi is the heart and soul of Korean cuisine, and perhaps even Korean culture. Kimchi is not just touted by Koreans for its flavor, but also for its substantial health benefits. I am a relatively recent convert to the cult of kimchi. I now view kimchi as one of those things that I just have to have in my refrigerator at all times. In order to maintain my kimchi habit, I now buy kimchi in one-gallon jars from the proprietor of Korean House restaurant located in Overland Park's 888 International Market. I even think I'm going to start making my own, starting with green onion kimchi. Many others have become members after military postings to South Korea. My conversion came a few years ago when the proprietor of a local (and now sadly closed) restaurant offered me some of his homemade kimchi, and I was hooked. After that, he always gave me kimchi for no extra charge every time I came in, probably because I was one of the few patrons undaunted by its reputation and willing to appreciate its virtues.
Let’s face it, kimchi has a somewhat off-putting reputation due to two factors, its smell and its spiciness. The most common form of kimchi (baechu kimchi) consists of Napa cabbage combined with garlic, ginger, chili powder, salted shrimp, and/or fish sauce and then fermented, so it might be helpful to think of it as spicy Korean sauerkraut. Yes, it does smell funny; and yes, it can contain an intimidating amount of chili paste. Let’s address these objections to the gustatory glory that is kimchi.
Kimchi smells funny because it’s fermented, and it contains garlic and fish sauce, both powerful sources of odor in their own rights. First, newly-made kimchi is nowhere near as fragrant as well-aged kimchi. The kimchi commonly available in most non-specialty grocery stores is pretty tame when it comes to odor, but even with refrigeration, it will develop a powerful odor over time. So will sauerkraut. Garlic has a strong odor, but that doesn’t stop anybody from eating at Olive Garden. But fermented fish? Isn’t that nasty? You’ve probably had fermented fish sauce and not even known it. If you like Thai or Vietnamese food, you’ve likely had dishes containing fish sauce. In fact, fermented fish sauces aren’t just an Asian thing. Worcestershire sauce is just a fancy name for fermented anchovy and tamarind sauce.
Kimchi can be very spicy, but it comes in a wide range of heat levels. Most of the kimchi I’ve had looks MUCH hotter than it actually is. Korean chili paste is less fiery than other varieties, and I think the fermentation process takes a little of the fire away, too. Some varieties of kimchi lack chili paste altogether. The brand of kimchi available at local Price Chopper and Hy-Vee grocery stores comes in two varieties, mild and hot. The mild variety contains almost no chilis, and the hot variety is far less spicy than many salsas. It's nowhere near the heat level of Sriracha or Tabasco sauces.
Finally, while baechu kimchi is by far the most common type, there is a dizzying array of kimchi styles. Just about any vegetable can be used make a kimchi. Other popular varieties use green onions, daikon or other radishes, squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, pears, bean sprouts, and greens. There are even seafood kimchis, although I suspect these are best left for more adventurous folks with advanced palates. Asian radish "water" kimchi lacks chilis and fish sauce and is served chilled and is very refreshing.
Young kimchi is served as a side dish with just about every Korean meal. While it's good as a side or even just as a topping for rice, I've found many new uses for it. I've taken to using it as a condiment on hot dogs and brats, and I've started making what I refer to as the Kore-to by rolling stir-fried beef or pork and kimchi up in a tortilla. With age, kimchi becomes very sour and is then used as ingredient rather than a side dish. I've had kimchi jiggae (stew) and kimchi fried rice at restaurants, and now I plan on making my own in the very near future.
Hopefully, you're now at the point where you don't find kimchi too exotic. A good introduction to Korean cooking and kimchi would be kimchijeon pancakes. They are incredibly easy to make and have become my go-to late night snack food. Just follow the first recipe in this video by the wonderful Maangchi and you're on the way to appreciating the joys of Korean cooking and kimchi. Serve it with a dipping sauce made from soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, and sesame oil.