I’ve been eating kimchi since 2011. I know the date because I’ve just searched my emails to try and find a long rant I had sent my friend Liz on the subject, and although the rant isn’t there – it may have been by text message, or maybe I went old school and sent an actual paper-based letter – there is a message to someone else from 2011 talking about my new-found love of Korean fermented cabbage.
(Kimchi, and other fermented foods, have acquired a distinct whiff of hipsterism along with the whiff of fermentation.* An internet search for “kimchi hipster” brings up assorted articles from the mid-2010s about hipsters loving kimchi. This is likely a few years after hipsters started to get excited about kimchi, meaning the timing of my discovery of it sits squarely in the ‘part of the problem’ column; my much more recent first attempt at making kimchi – see below – puts me in the ‘on the bandwagon, rather late’ column. As ever, it’s fun to write about this but it isn’t a solid base on which to make culinary decisions.)
The gist of the rant was that I had read about Kimchi in Madhur Jaffrey’s A Taste of the Far East, a book that I habitually browse whenever I visit my parents. Fermented vegetables (most iconically Chinese leaf, aka Napa cabbage), pungent with garlic, ginger and chilli? Yes, that sounds like something I want to try. Unfortunately, the pungency tends also to come from oysters, shrimp and other seafood sources. But worth a look to see what’s available…
I took a trip to Hang Sing, one of Leeds’ Chinese supermarkets. There in the fridge I found pots of kimchi, including the Chongga brand**. I read the ingredients, and to my delight there was no seafood nor fish included. Other brands, and other varieties of Chongga kimchi (such as radish kimchi) were not vegetarian, but this was.
On returning home, I opened the pot, and was hit with a most exciting smell: enticingly sour, rich with the aroma of garlic, a tingle of chilli heat. And the taste!… I ate my way through five or six pots over the next few weeks. Kimchi with rice. Kimchi in stir-fries. Kimchi in noodle soup. Kimchi on toast, for breakfast. My now-ex-wife, not a fan of pungent, strong foods at the best of times and especially not at breakfast, looked aghast for much of these weeks.
Stocking up on my fourth or fifth round of kimchi back at Hang Sing Hong, I paused on a whim to re-read the ingredients. And there it was. “Anchovy”.
The packaging was the same apart from this change to the ingredients. Whether Chongga have different recipes, some vegetarian and some not, I don’t know. (I’ve been unable to find a definitive answer to this question.) Dejected, I shut the fridge door – after reading the ingredients of every variety of kimchi in there, to no avail.
A few months later, I found a jar of vegetarian kimchi (again in Hang Sing Hong. It was on the shelf rather than in the fridge – perhaps indicating that the fermentation had been more thoroughly stopped rather than simply slowed right down as is the case with chilled kimchi). This kimchi was sour, pungent, hot, all the things that I was looking for, but just didn’t cut it. It lacked the umami depth that had made the refrigerated Chongga kimchi so addictive. The kind of depth that more easily comes from things like anchovies and oysters than from vegetables alone. Have Chongga discovered the secret to animal-free kimchi? Or was there a mix-up in the labelling department? (In writing this post, I’ve had another look on the internet and still been unable to find anything to confirm whether or not the recipe varies, or that there have been some mishaps with labelling. In the absence of any information, I’m happy to assume that their listed ingredients are accurate.)
Skipping ahead a year or two: I was again in Hang Sing Hong, and glanced at the kimchi section of the fridges on my way past. The same rows of kimchi – Chongga and others were there. But here was a slight difference… Chongga had added to the labels on the pots of regular kimchi the description “All Natural / Probiotic”. As if being addictively delicious isn’t enough, kimchi (like many fermented foods) is good for you. Could it be that this seeming move to tap into a different market was accompanied by the removal of fishy animals?
I ate my way through five or six pots of this indeed-seafood-free kimchi over the next few weeks. Kimchi with rice. Kimchi in stir-fries. Kimchi in noodle soup. Kimchi on toast, for breakfast. My ex-wife continued to look aghast.
Can you tell where this is going? Yes, the brand that stole and then broke my heart had got back together with me for a wild fling, only to turn its back on me once again and cavort with marine creatures. Other vegetarian brands of kimchi have been tried, and failed to live up to my hopes, though some get fairly close. At the time of writing I have an unopened pot of Chongga kimchi in the fridge that’s a year past its best before date, a pot from the third wave of seemingly vegetarian Chongga kimchi.
(left): Kimchi, prepared and in a jar ready to seal and ferment. There’s a food bag with water in to help keep the topmost layer of vegetables below the seasoning.
(right): Fermented for five days and then put in the fridge for a further day.
Last week, I finally made my own kimchi. This was prompted by seeing Felicity Cloake’s recipe on The Guardian’s website, and also informed by reading a non-vegetarian recipe and a vegetarian one on koreanbapsang.com. I used a head of Chinese leaf, cut into thick strips, a medium-sized daikon cut into long strips around 5mm square cross-section, and a peeled and thinly sliced apple. To make the chilli, garlic and ginger seasoning I used kombu [kelp] stock, and added a dessertspoon each of dried wakame and dulse seaweeds. This 3-Hit Kombo [© Will Chalk – I can’t claim credit for this particular dodgy pun, unfortunately] would, I hoped, provide some of that marine umami that anchovies and their aquatic friends bring.
After five days fermenting, I gave it a try. It’s good stuff. Not quite as savoury-delicious as the Chongga brand, but for a first attempt I am mightily pleased, and will bump up the seaweed content a bit next time, perhaps sneaking in a bit of miso paste for added fermented umami goodness. And this time, my rantings will be saved for posterity, at least for as long as this blog is active.
AN UPDATE, A WEEK AFTER PUTTING THE JAR IN THE FRIDGE
Well, that was fun while it lasted. The jar broke in the fridge. It’s possible this was due to a build-up of pressure I suppose, though being refrigerated is supposed to significantly reduce the rate of fermentation. There may have been a weakness in the jar (I think it’s a cheap off-brand jar from a discount store). New, hopefully stronger, jars are on order.
* Bread, beer and wine are of course much better-established in this country than most fermented foods; but look to sourdough, craft beer, and wild yeast wines for examples of a resurgent interest in making versions of fermented staples.
** This blog has no affiliation to Chongga, nor is it intended as an endorsement nor criticism of the brand. I haven’t named other brands because I can’t remember any that I have tried. There is also no affiliation to Hang Sing Hong, though I’d like to note that they are always lovely in there and have lots of exciting things to buy.