If you think that store-bought kimchi is either too watery, or too hot or bland, or it just doesn’t meet your personal standards, it isn’t hard to resort to homemade kimchi. You have to be patient though.
My daughter, Alex, makes kimchi. Not really because we can’t get good ready-to-eat kimchi but because we can’t get kimchi these days, period. There is an Asian minimart near our house where kimchi is good and reasonably priced but it is temporarily closed.
We already anticipated that it would stay closed like most business establishments until life goes back to a semblance of what it was before that fateful announcement on January 30, 2020. During the last few days that the Asian minimart could deliver, we ordered a one-kilogram bag of chili flakes for making kimchi.
Is kimchi-making difficult? It depends on what kind of kimchi you’re making. Although non-Koreans are mostly familiar with napa cabbage kimchi, there are so many kinds. In Korea, what vegetable can be made into kimchi depends on the season. The level of difficulty in making them varies. Napa cabbage kimchi is the only kind we have attempted at home. The process isn’t difficult but it is labor intensive.
Salting and seasoning a whole head of napa cabbage
It starts with salting the napa cabbage leaves one by one. This softens the leaves, provides the first layer of flavor and minimizes the growth of putrefactive bacteria (the kind that causes decay). The salting, or brining, takes a few hours — that’s the total time it takes to spread salt on the leaves one by one, and leaving them to soak in the salt for two hours or so.
There are many techniques for seasoning the vegetables. The technique that Alex uses requires a base of water, glutinous rice flour and sugar that are cooked until bubbly then cooled. The spices and seasonings, carrot, radish and scallions are mixed into the cooked glutinous rice flour. This is the mixture that is spread on the salted cabbage leaves after rinsing and draining well. The seasoned cabbage segments are rolled and packed.
It is possible to eat the nappa cabbage kimchi right after seasoning. But it won’t have the rich flavors that only come about after fermentation.
Fermenting the kimchi: how long?
Alex has made kimchi twice. The first time, we tested the kimchi every two days. First time, you know? Excited. And that was how we realized that patience is a real virtue in kimchi-making. Flavors, courtesy of fermentation, did not develop fully until TEN DAYS after seasoning the napa cabbage.
If you want to try making napa cabbage kimchi at home, I recommend Maangchi’s recipe which was what Alex followed both times she made kimchi. The results are fantastic. We’re not going back to store-bought kimchi.