There's seafood in traditional kimchi? Yes. Kimchi—a term which refers to a broad category of various pickled, fermented vegetables served as as side dish or condiment to the main meal—is more often than not flavoured with some kind of fermented seafood product like brined shrimp and/or fish sauce.
That's bad news for vegetarians. The role of those fermented seafood products is to add a good amount of glutamic acid to the mix. That's the chemical which gives our mouths the sensation of savouriness or umami and part of what makes kimchi taste so deep and complex. Here's the good news: There are other common ingredients that can provide concentrated bursts of glutamic acid just as well, and vegetarian/vegan kimchi is incredibly simple to make at home.
Though there are countless variety of kimchi, the most common is made with fermented napa cabbage flavored with chilis, scallions, and plenty of garlic. That's the version I'm after here. First step is to salt the cabbage leaves, which accomplishes two goals. Firstly, salt is a natural preservative. It restricts the activity of bacteria in your kimchi, allowing other types of bacteria (named lactobacillus kimchii) to complete their job of creating acid to give kimchi its characteristic sour flavor and funk before the whole thing has a chance to rot.
Secondly, through the power of osmosis, salt will draw liquid out of the cabbage cells. This causes the leaves to wilt and tenderize, as well as providing a briny flavor-base for which to pack your kimchi.
I massage whole cabbage leaves with a bit of salt and let them rest for about half a day while they slowly release their liquid (you can rush it if you want!).
Garlic—and lots of it—is a given, as are scallions. I like to add a touch of ginger to my kimchi. With a standard kimchi flavor base, you get a hint of seafood funk from the shrimp. In this vegetarian version, I add a few slices of daikon radish to the mix, a vegetable known for becoming quite pungent when fermented. Salting it along with the cabbage is the way to go. A hint of sugar helps to balance out the salt and spice.
What's the best substitute for the umami-burst of the dried shrimp? I tried a number of things, including soy sauce, marmite, and pure MSG powder, but the best option was red miso paste, a similarly glutamate-rich condiment that's readily available.
As for the kochukaru—Korean dried chili powder, this is perhaps the only ingredient that can be a little tough to track down, but it's absolutely essential. Korean chilis are a lot more about flavor than heat. You can pack a whole load of chili powder into your kimchi before you end up with a significant amount of heat. I haven't found any other pepper with a similar flavor profile and heat/aroma ratio.
If you've got a Korean or large Asian grocer near you, you may be in luck. Otherwise, hey! The internet if your friend. (The stuff sold on Amazon shows whole chilis in the bag, but it's the wrong picture—that's powder).
The rest of the process is pretty darn simple. All you've got to do is process your aromatics together into a paste. You can do this the old fashioned way with a mortar and pestle, but a food processor will do just fine. I like to leave a few larger slices of scallion out so that I can add them whole to the mix for a bit of color later on.
After coating your wilted cabbage and radish in the spice blend, all you've got to do is pack it tightly into jars, adding enough brine to make sure that everything is submerged, then let time do its work.
Some folks (like the ever-helpful David Lebovitz) recommend letting the jar sit at room temperature for a couple of days to ferment. It's a good way to get your kimchi on the table faster, but I prefer the ease of just shoving the thing in the fridge and tracking its progression as the days go by. Within about a week or so, it's ready to eat and it comes to its funky, sour, garlicky prime at around the 3 to 4-week mark.
Author: Capsicum Culinary Studio
- 1 White Cabbage
- ¼ cup Sea salt or kosher salt
- Spring Water
- 1 tsp Grated ginger
- 6 Cloves of garlic cleaned
- 1 tsp coconut sugar
- 1-5 tbsp Red Chili Flakes
- 240g Daikon Radish, peeled and cut into matchsticks (If you can’t find Daikon radish use the small red ones, they have better colour)
- 4 Spring Onions
- Cut the cabbage lengthwise into quarters and remove the cores. Cut each quarter crosswise into twqo-inch-wide strips.
- Salt the cabbage.
- Place the cabbage and salt in a large bowl.
- Using your clean hands massage the salt into the cabbage until it starts to soften a bit, then add water to cover the cabbage.
- Put a plate on top and weigh it down with something heavy, like a jar or heavy pot. Let stand for four hours.
- Rinse and drain the cabbage to get rid of all the saltiness. Please remember to clean the bowl you soaked the cabbage in.
- Make the paste - combine the garlic, ginger, coconut sugar, and three tablespoons water in a small bowl and mix to form a smooth paste. Mix in three to five tablespoons of Red Chili flakes (Depending on taste).
- Combine the vegetables and paste.
- The radishes need to be neatly sliced into thin rounds and the Spring Onions need to be chopped. Add the paste,
- Mix thoroughly - Using your hands, gently work the paste into the vegetables until they are thoroughly coated. The gloves are optional here but highly recommended to protect your hands from stings, stains, and smells!
- Pack the kimchi into the jar, pressing down on it until the brine rises to cover the vegetables. Leave at least one-inch of headspace. Seal the jar with the lid.
- Let it ferment. Let the jar stand at room temperature for one to five days. You may see bubbles inside the jar and brine may seep out of the lid; place a bowl or plate under the jar to help catch any overflow.
- Check it daily and refrigerate when ready.
- Check the kimchi once a day, pressing down on the vegetables with a clean finger or spoon to keep them submerged under the brine. (This also releases gases produced during fermentation.) Taste a little at this point, too! When the kimchi tastes ripe enough for your liking, transfer the jar to the refrigerator. You may eat it right away, but it's best after another week or two.