‘Without kimchi, I can’t live!’ declares Jun Pyo Kwon, as he guides us through the steps of making Korea’s national dish. Quickly becoming Korea’s best known dish, kimchi is increasing in popularity as the thirst for fermented foods grows and grows.
Having previously been head chef at glitzy central London restaurant Kimchee, in 2013 Jun Pyo bought Yijo in Central Finchley – a local neighbourhood restaurant where he could ‘share more authentic food’ with his customers. ‘I wanted my own place, to do my own cooking’, he explains.
Having quickly built up a loyal customer base – who appreciated the range of authentic Korean treats as well as Yijo’s headline menu item, Korean barbecue – Jun Pyo started offering cooking classes, keen to teach eager students how to make Korean food themselves.
It was inevitable that first on the books was a class on making kimchi.
Fermentation has been used to preserve food in East Asia for millennia. Early kimchi was a simple dish made by preserving cabbage in beef stock and fish sauce; it was only following the introduction to Korea of the red chilli in the 16th century that kimchi morphed into the fiery red dish it is today.
Made by fermenting vegetables in a spicy marinade, preserved kimchi has a distinctive sour note as well as chilli heat, crunchiness and umami savouriness. In Korea there are hundreds of varieties, made from different vegetables and with variations in what Jun Pyo calls ‘the porridge‘ – the blend of ingredients in which the vegetables are marinated before setting aside to age.
Some coastal regions add fresh oysters, salted shrimp and lots of salt to their kimchi. Elsewhere, less salt is used and seafood is not commonly included. White kimchi, without chilli, is a milder variation, prevalent in some parts of the country.
Some prefer their kimchi aged, the longer the better for a more pronounced sourness. Others enjoy it fresh, as soon as it’s made.
Historically, such differences were also seasonal. In spring, Koreans enjoyed fresh kimchi made from spring herbs and vegetables. In summer, crunchy summer vegetables such as cucumbers and radishes were used. Late autumn was the time to make preserved napa cabbage kimchi, to be aged and eaten during the long winter months.
Jun Pyo remembers his mother turning hundreds of cabbages into kimchi every November during his childhood. He tells us, ‘all the mamas worked in teams, at a different mama’s house each day’ to make enough kimchi for each family – each member of his family of five would eat a whopping 100 cabbages’ worth of kimchi through the winter.
He gleefully recalls his excitement as a young boy, ‘waiting for kimchi time’. The traditional meal to complete ‘kimjang day’ – the day of kimchi making – was pork, rice, tofu and of course, fresh kimchi.
Even now, making kimchi regularly to serve to Yijo’s customers, Jun Pyo can’t help but feel cheered; ‘When I’ve made kimchi I always feel better. I feel rich!’
The class is hands-on, so each of us makes our own Seoul-style kimchi with napa cabbage – the most common kind today. But Jun Pyo tells us that he also likes to use leeks, fern, Korean chives, cucumber, mooli… Indeed, there’s no reason not to use other vegetables we like such as broccoli or even asparagus.
After halving our cabbages we learn how to salt them and, once they have soaked a while in the brine, gently open up the leaves ready to insert the marinade. Making the marinade involves creating a thick porridge of rice flour before mixing in a range of ingredients including garlic and ginger, fish sauce, fresh and preserved seafood, spring onions, chives and an enormous amount of Korean red chilli powder. Once the marinade is layered between all the leaves, we lovingly pat our cabbage halves into tight round balls and place them into containers to ferment.
Throughout the lesson, we are encouraged to adapt to our own tastes. ‘We have a manual’, says Jun Pyo, ‘but we can forget the manual, we can break the rules!’
To make a fresh kimchi, we tear salted cabbage leaves into small pieces and mix them into more of the same marinade. This is ready to eat straight away. With our half-cabbage kimchi packed ready to take home, Jun Pyo invites us to sit and eat a traditional kimjang day meal of our own.
As we eat, I ask Jun Pyo about his favourite ways to enjoy kimchi. He nods fervently as he talks; ‘freshly made, I love it on steamed rice. When it is old – as old as possible – I cook kimchi mandu’ (dumplings).
Can he give us any more ideas on how best to use ours?
‘Kimchi is my life’, he says before launching enthusiastically into a list of dishes such as kimchi jiggae (a rich kimchi-laden stew), kimchi jeon (pancake) and kimchi bokkuembab (fried rice). Clearly, I still have lots to learn about Korean cuisine, and I know just the place to come.
How to Make Korean Napa Cabbage Kimchi
How to Make Korean Napa Cabbage Kimchi
- 1 large napa cabbage (Korean cabbage or Chinese leaf)
- Sea salt
- A small dried sea kelp
- 30 g ground rice or glutinous rice flour (or plain flour if you can't find a rice one)
- 125 ml water
- 6 garlic cloves, crushed
- 50 g Korean chilli powder
- 1 tbsp freshly grated ginger
- Splash of fish sauce
- 2 fresh oysters
- 2 tbsp salted shrimps
- 1 small onion, thinly sliced
- 1 Korean pear, crushed or pureed
- 1 bunch spring onions (green scallions)
- Some garlic chives, chopped
If you would prefer to eat your kimchi straight away rather than let it age, chop the cabbage into small pieces and mix right into the kimchi paste.
Preparing the cabbage
Cut your cabbage in half. If you find it easier, you can halve again into quarters. Make sure the core stays intact, as this holds the leaves together.
Soak the cabbage pieces in cold salted water (ratio 1:10. One part of salt for ten parts of water).
In a very large salad bowl, take each half or quarter of cabbage, gently separate the leaves and sprinkle a little salt between each one.
Set this aside for at least 5-6 hours, or overnight. This allows the salt to soften the cabbage.
When the cabbage has softened, rinse thoroughly, ensuring the water gets between the leaves to remove the salt.
Making the kimchi paste
In a small pan, boil the water with the dried kelp. Then, add the rice flour into the pan and continue to heat gently. When the mixture becomes translucent, thick, and starts to bubble, it’s ready.
Pour it in a salad bowl and let it cool done a bit before adding all the other paste ingredients. Mix well.
Once the kimchi paste is mixed, start applying it between each leaf of the cabbage pieces. You may prefer to wear gloves for this, it can get messy!
Carefully roll the edges of each piece of cabbaged under to create a tightly packed ball, and put in an airtight container or glass jar.
Let it rest at ambient temperature for 1-2 days before putting it in the fridge.
The longer it ferments, the more of a sour flavour your kimchi will have, and it should happily last for a few months.
- Kimchi Bokkeumbab (Korean Kimchi Fried Rice Recipe)
- Baby Courgette Kimchi Recipe
- Pumpkin Kimchi Recipe
- Kimchi Biscuits
Pin for later