Whatcha Eatin’? Kimchi

Photo by Ryan Magee | Mercury Staff.

Call me crazy, but I adore all things fermented, such as miso, kombucha or sauerkraut. Beyond the fact that eating fermented food offers a number of health benefits, fermented food just tastes more robust and interesting. The only dish I hadn’t tried was kimchi, a popular South Korean fermented vegetable dish.

Kimchi originated in the Korean Peninsula about 2,000 years ago and was a way for people to store vegetables for longer periods of time through salt preservation. With the introduction of Chinese cabbage and red chili peppers, the recipe for kimchi began to resemble the form as we know it today. Filled to the brim with Korean red peppers — or gochugaru — along with garlic, onions and sometimes fish, jars of kimchi are placed in fridges or stored at room temperature to be fermented for up to a week. Kimchi is a good source of probiotics, is low in calories and boosts immunity. Fellow Mercury staffer EJ Chong and I decided to try two types of kimchi: Napa cabbage kimchi and cucumber kimchi. We also tried kimchi fried rice, a favorite dish among Koreans.

To give me an idea of how kimchi is made, EJ combined chopped chunks of Napa cabbage, a type of Chinese cabbage, green onions, garlic and loads of the gochugaru, which turned into a red paste. She then mixed all of it together, and it looked like a very bright red chunky stew that smelled strongly of pickles and peppers.

However, we decided to try premade versions of kimchi, as it would take a while for the kimchi EJ made to ferment. H-Mart sells boxes of many variants of kimchi and has multiple restaurants in its food court. The first one we tried was Napa cabbage kimchi, which looked similar to the one EJ made, but this one was much thinner and smelled stronger. I’m not sure what I was expecting at first bite, but the taste was indescribably spicy and vinegary. The fermentation process likely contributed to this very strong flavor, but it was actually quite pleasant.

The next type of kimchi we tried was cucumber kimchi, which the package referred to as “stuffed cucumber kimchi.” Much to my dismay, this form of kimchi didn’t live up to its title. It was literally whole but partially peeled cucumbers smothered in the kimchi seasonings and bright red peppers. EJ told me that depending on the vegetable or fruit used, the taste could change. In this case, the cucumbers contributed a much sweeter taste than the traditional Napa cabbage. At first bite, the cucumber’s sweet, watery taste dominated, but the intense spiciness was what distinguished it from the Napa cabbage kimchi. I don’t particularly care for cucumbers, even if they’re covered in delicious and tangy seasonings, but it was still a tasty dish.

EJ said people don’t normally eat kimchi by itself, as it’s typically eaten as a side dish or incorporated into other dishes such as soups, stews and rice. We tried kimchi fried rice, which EJ referred to as “the mac and cheese of Korea” because of how common the dish is for Koreans. I could definitely see why it is such a favorite, because kimchi fried rice is quite possibly the most decadent and flavorful fried rice I’ve tried. Biryani has some serious competition here. Bright red, topped with a sunny-side up egg and bursting with spicy, tangy flavors, the fried rice was both exciting and comforting at the same time. The rice itself came with little sides such as fish cakes, kimchi and bean sprouts, all of which were delicious and added to the flavors of the rice itself.

It’s interesting that many different cultures have their own version of fermented food. The Germans have sauerkraut, which is fermented green cabbage, and the Japanese have natto, which are fermented soybeans. It’s amazing to see the different variations of fermented food across cultures. As for kimchi, I never thought that what’s basically bacteria-filled spicy cabbage could taste so good and could be such an integral part of Korean culture.

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