One Christmas gift from my spouse was a kimchi pot. It seems as though I have been fermenting things my whole life. When I was a young boy, I helped my grandmother (from a German farm family in North Dakota) shred bushels of cabbage every fall. We used a wooden slicer with a guillotine-like blade – a rustic mandoline – to shred the cabbage before salting it and placing it in very large pottery crocks lined up along the wall of an outbuilding in her back yard. The crocks were filled to the brim with cabbage, salt, and water. Then we placed a cracked dinner plate on top of each crock and weighed them down with a brick or big rock. It then became my responsibility to check the crocks each day to replenish the liquid if needed. There must have been at least a dozen crocks, and the smell of fermenting cabbage soon became overwhelming in the building, even seeping out into the backyard. For a child, the process seemed interminable although it was probably only a couple of weeks. In any event, when my grandmother decided that the process was complete, it was time to fire up the canning equipment and activate the canning crew of women and children in the family. Steam rose from several big pots on the stove as jars were sterilized, filled and processed; sweat poured from the ladies who seemed happy enough. The end product of all this effort was rows of gleaming jars filled with sauerkraut. They would get stored in the scary basement and serve the family through the winter. At least once a week the evening meal consisted of a mound of sauerkraut, mashed potatoes with no butter, and a sausage (My recollection is that it was actually a hot dog.) That menu is one I resist to this day.
Great carrying case
Fermentation crock and weight
Those memories inspired me to try my hand at sauerkraut making when we lived in Louisiana. I found a small crock at a potters’ in Marshal, Texas. I shredded the cabbage on a wooden shredder we had found in an “antique store” – read junk shop – in some small East Texas town. I set up my fermentation lab in a hallway between the kitchen and dining room that we had dubbed the butler’s pantry. The smell of fermenting cabbage hung in the air of the butler’s pantry. Our children, some of them teenagers, thought that Old Dad had gone off the deep end, and they were very amused. They loved to bring their friends to inspect the crock and inhale the fragrance. The visits always ended in gales of laughter.
In Santa Fe, Susan gave me a beautiful German crock to rekindle my interest in fermentation. I have written about the sauerkraut that I made with that crock. All of the family enjoyed Reuben sandwiches made with the sauerkraut. Unfortunately, the lid of the crock was broken in our move to California. We patched it together, and we tried to buy a new one, but apparently the German manufacturer has stopped importing to the United States. The other problem was that the crock made a LOT of sauerkraut.
Since our move to Southern California, we have had the opportunity to eat many varieties of Asian food. Korean restaurants are especially common nearby, and there are many families of Korean background who live in our neighborhood. We have become fans of kimchi. Susan apparently thought it was time to make another effort on fermentation, so she gave me a smaller glass container specially designed so that it is automatically vented and you don’t have to worry about maintaining a water seal. Of course, you can make sauerkraut or giardiniera, but my first effort seemed like it should be kimchi. I assumed that finding the ingredients should be no problem at our local supermarket, and I headed there with shopping list in hand:
Napa cabbage. Check
Closeup napa cabbage
Daikon radish. Check
Fish sauce. I went to the aisle labelled “Asian/Hispanic”. The only fish sauce was from Thailand!?
Rice flour. I already had some in the pantry and then U decided not to make the slurry for kimchi paste
Korean chili pepper. I looked through the shelves several times, and all I could find was Gochugang spicy miso sauce.
I totally struck out on salted, fermented shrimp so Carol drove me to the Korean market down the hill. We showed an iPhone image of what we were looking for to two young men who were stocking shelves. They averred that they had never heard of it and they didn’t have it. With persistence, Carol found a jar labelled “shrimp sauce (finely ground), Product of China” which we bought.
One of many aisles in the Asian market
Lots of chopsticks
Salted, fermented shrimp paste
Having assembled all of the ingredients, I began to make my first kimchi even though I am certain that our Korean neighbors would cringe at labeling the stuff as such. The first order of business was to cut the Daikon radish and carrots into 3 inch match sticks. For that I used a French mandoline that sits unused in its box even though it is a beautiful machine to behold. Then the real production of kimchi began. After sitting in the jar on my desk for four days with little odor, the kimchi was ready. I transferred it to Mason jars to be refrigerated. I also ate a good portion. If I do say, it turned out to be pretty delicious.
Carrot and radish matchsticks
Assembled and ready for the crock
The finished product
- 1 medium head napa cabbage
- ½ cup salt
- 2 cups Daikon radish peeled and cut into 3 inch julienne
- 2 carrots, peeled and cut into 3 inch julienne
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 6 scallions, roots removed and cut into 1 inch pieces
- 1/3 cup spicy miso sauce
- ¼ cup fish sauce
- ¼ ginger, peeled and minced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 teaspoons salted, fermented shrimp sauce
- 1½ teaspoons sugar
- Cut the cabbage in half, lengthwise. Cut crosswise in 2 inch pieces, discarding the core. Sprinkle the cut cabbage with salt and then place in a large bowl. Cover with water, cover with plastic wrap and set aside for 4 hours.
- After the cabbage has soaked, drain in a colander and rinse to remove salt, and return to the bowl.
- Add all the remaining ingredients and mix well. Transfer to the fermentation crock. Seal the crock with the venting lid. Place the crock in a cool place, undisturbed, for 4 days. Then bottle or eat the finished kimchi. Bottles may be refrigerated for up to a month.