Chinese cabbage kimchi

Categories: Product of the week

A traditional fermented foodstuff from new trader Time For Kimchi

“Kimchi is a traditional Korean fermented vegetable dish which has become increasingly popular here in Britain,” says Heaju, owner of Time For Kimchi, which has recently joined the Borough Market community. “In Korea we have eaten it for thousands of years and it is an integral part of our wider traditions and culture.” Historically it was used to ensure a winter supply of vegetables. “Winters in Korea are long and extremely cold and without fridges and modern ways of growing vegetables in heated greenhouses, kimchi was the only way of having vegetables available throughout the winter.”

 It also gives them a lovely tangy edge. “Kimchi is seasoned with spices and there is a real variety of flavours if you travel around Korea. I would say my kimchi is moderate in terms of spiciness. Customers who know kimchi have said they’re happy with the spice—a couple have even asked if I can make it spicier.”

The fermentation preserves the vegetable, but also changes its structure, creating lots of microorganisms which are very good for the gut—which we are beginning to realise is very important for our overall health. “It is only in modern times that we have discovered the health benefits and I think this is one of the reasons it has become more popular in western cultures.”

Earthen pots
Kimchi is made using a very simple process. “It was—and sometimes still is—a real community thing,” Heaju explains. “People would get together and make a large quantity of kimchi, which would then be shared between them. They would then put it into large earthen pots which were buried outside just below the surface of the ground, and this would keep it good throughout the winter.”

The great thing about kimchi is that there are no chemicals or preservatives involved. Heaju keeps things simple by making her kimchi the way she learned from her mother. “You can make kimchi with many different things, but cabbage is probably the most popular. I use Chinese cabbage for the kimchi I make for the stall,” she explains. “After washing it, I chop it into bite-sized pieces and then add some sea salt—enough so all the cabbage will get salted—and really mix it in to make sure all the leaves are covered and let it set for a few hours, depending on the quantity of the cabbage.”

Once it starts to soften, she rinses off some of the salt—“though it is important to keep a good proportion of it, as it is the main ingredient in the fermentation process”—then pours off the water that the cabbage has released. “I then make a kimchi seasoning—we all have our different recipes—and mix everything together thoroughly. I leave it covered at room temperature for a few days to kickstart the initial fermentation, then put it in jars and it is ready to eat.”

Skill, knowledge and experience
While it sounds simple, as always, it takes skill, knowledge and experience to turn a few basic ingredients into a delicious spicy food using nothing but judgement and time. “Some people like their kimchi very fresh, so that the spicing is the more prevalent taste as the fermentation is very light at this stage. Others really enjoy that acidic edge that fermentation gives and prefer kimchi that has been fermented for a bit longer.”

The fermentation process continues once you have taken the kimchi home and opened the jar. “The flavour will keep developing and the texture will continue to change.” In fact, it turns out that the temperature in the fridge is perfect for fermenting kimchi, as it is similar to the temperature found in those original underground storage containers.

“In Korea kimchi is ever present. If you are eating rice it will be one of the side dishes, the same with noodles—even some pizza restaurants serve it as a side dish. “For my English customers, I say the best way to think if kimchi is like a pickle,” Heaju explains. “For example, I always have some with a curry. It also goes very well with a roast, and with cheese. There is also a new dish in Korea called kimchi fried rice which is getting popular. It is an incredibly versatile food.”