With its signature fish or anchovy sauce, the traditional fermented Korean side dish kimchi (also spelled kimchee or gimchi) was an elusive concept to me, as a vegetarian, until a little over a year ago when I spotted a vegan version at Trader Joe’s. Packed in a handy re-sealable pouch and only $1.99, it was convenient and a bargain! I began eating it with everything—eggs, salads, sandwiches, in this, and this; you name it—everything was better with kimchi!
And then one day, horror of horrors, they no longer carried it, and I couldn’t get my fix. I asked the cheerful Trader Joe’s clerk, “Why oh why did you do this to me?” She told me they were getting complaints because pouches were bursting as the product fermented. Until they found packaging that could contain it, no more Trader Joe’s kimchi. The versions I’d find at other stores all contained the dreaded fish sauce. So sadly, I went without my spicy, funky Korean essential for many months.
I continued to search kimchi labels for the rare vegan version and lo and behold, I finally found it! A brand carried both at my co-op and a local grocery store. Happy once again, I resumed my kimchi love affair. The downside, though, was this wasn’t $1.99 like the TJ’s brand; it ranged between $9 and $11 depending on the store, making it a pricy habit.
It had never occurred to me to make my own until I saw The Kimchi Cookbook: 60 Traditional and Modern Ways to Make and Eat Kimchi one day on Food 52. Who knew there were so many ways to make kimchi!?! I ordered it immediately and found a recipe that was similar to what I had been buying, but it included fish sauce. The book suggests a vegetarian modification of either mushroom broth (which they provide a recipe for) or adding some apple and salt to the paste, neither of which seemed to me like good substitutions. I ended up using capers and a little caper brine, an idea taken from a vegan Caesar salad dressing I love.
There’s nothing too complicated about making kimchi, but it is time-consuming. Lots of chopping (which I don’t mind), brining, packing, plus the fermenting time, results in at least a week before you can enjoy the fruits of your labor, but believe me, it’s worth it! I was a bit concerned that the tops would blow off my canning jars—if the fermentation can burst pouches, I wasn’t sure. But no need to worry—just leave a good inch of space at the top of your container. Having never made anything fermented before, I was absolutely giddy to see the stuff bubbling and realizing the process was actually working! The finished product tasted even better than store-bought. Enjoy!
Napa Cabbage Kimchi
Note: Korean chile flakes (gochugaru) are not the same as crushed red pepper flakes. They are slightly sweet and smoky and have less heat that crushed red pepper or cayenne. If you can’t find them near you, they are easily available through Amazon.
2 medium heads (about 4-6 pounds total) napa cabbage
2 cups julienned daikon radish
2 cups julienned carrot
1/3 cup kosher salt
½ cup thinly sliced yellow onion
4 teaspoons minced garlic
2 teaspoons peeled, finely grated ginger
1 tablespoon capers
1 tablespoon caper brine
2 teaspoons sugar
½ cup Korean chile pepper flakes (gochugaru)
4 green onions, green parts only, cut into 2-inch pieces
¼ cup water
Half each head cabbage vertically, then cut each half in half to make quarters. Cut the core from each quarter, then cut each into 2-inch squares that are as uniform as possible.
In large bowl, combine the cabbage, daikon, carrot and salt and set aside for about an hour, stirring every once in a while. Drain the liquid and rinse the vegetables to remove any traces of salt. Let the veggies drain in a colander for 20 minutes or use a salad spinner to remove most of the water.
Meanwhile, make the seasoning paste. In the smaller bowl of a food processor (if you have more than one bowl size), pulse together the onion, garlic, ginger, capers, caper brine, and sugar until a paste forms. Transfer to a bowl and mix in the Korean chile pepper flakes. Set aside for at least 15 minutes to let the flavors combine.
In a large bowl, mix together the green onions, seasoning paste and drained vegetables until thoroughly combined, making sure the seasoning paste is distributed evenly among the vegetables (I used my hands for the final mixing).
Pack mixture tightly into a two-quart container or 2 one-quart jars, pressing down as you pack it to ensure there are no pockets of air, leaving at least an inch at the top to allow for expansion.
Add the ¼ cup water to the mixing bowl and swirl the water around to collect the remaining seasoning paste. Add the water to the container(s), cover tightly, and set aside for 3 days at room temperature. The cabbage will expand and bubble as it ferments. After 3 days, refrigerate and consume within 6 months. The flavor will evolve and change over time with a steady, cold temperature. Keeping the kimchi tightly packed in the jar will ensure an even, slow fermentation. Makes about 2 quarts.