The Kim Chi Department

Living near Tokyo means Seoul is a day trip. I was in Seoul last May to visit a friend for hanami, do a little shopping, and eat. The most prestigious department store in South Korea is a massive 12 story chunk of architecture named Lotte. Their food department is kinetic, laid out to show how much you’re spending and pulse you through the whole floor. Each pristine display has a salesperson fitted to the task. Toothsome young ladies in Confectionary, delicate women in Fruits, dishy old broads in Kim-Chi — I confess, I completely enjoyed the over attention in Kim-Chi.

The moment I purchased 1000 grams from one, another would rhapsodise me, and so I waltzed through Kim-Chi into Fresh Produce with kilos of ferment.

I spend 200USD on Kim Chi that day — beware of coquettish older women in Kim Chi.

Simple steps to make kim-chi.

Simple steps to make kim-chi: clean, slice, salt, pack.

Sometime after I came back I causally started reading about how to make Kim Chi. Then I bought Sandor Katzevery’s book and Mary Karlin’s. Later I bought some containers and went vegetable shopping. It was October red chilies were at their peak, so I bought plenty in place of the dried powdered peppers and ready made pastes.

Five litres of anything would bore me. I decided to layer several different vegetables in the containers including daikon, lotus root, burdock, napa cabbage, turnips, carrot, chrysanthemum stalks so as to always be within reach of something new.

With vegetables cleaned, skinned, stemmed, sliced, diced and ready, let’s begin.

The method is simple: Take a measure of salt and rub it in into whatever you want to put into the jar. You can sprinkle salt throughout the vegetables, then leave it sit; or you can immediately start to “squeeze” the leaves and stems, rub and knead the roots. The goal is to break the cell walls so that the liquid within starts to come out.

How much salt depends on who you ask. I measured one tablespoon (non iodised) salt per kilo of vegetables — and tasted constantly while I was kneading the vegetables.

With several different bowls on the counter resting in their brine into the Vitamix I put:

  • and equal amount of garlic to ginger by weight (tastes differ)
  • 1 cup of red chilies (which ended up being on the boarder of too hot for me)
  • 1/4 fish sauce
  • 1 onion
  • 2 tablespoons rice flour (to feed the bacteria)
  • 2 tablespoons of white sugar (to feed the bacteria)
  • In place of water I added the cores of the napa cabbage and chunks of daikon
  • To thicken the paste I added 1 cup of Kashmire chilli powder (which has no heat)

I set up a large bowl with a colander. As I went through each vegetable I poured the contents into the colander and squeezed, collecting the brine in the bowl below. I tasted for salt, adding when needed, then poured enough kim-chi sauce to coat the vegetables. Finally I layered them in the jar. I repeated for each layer. When I got near the top I used a potato masher to press the vegetables down into the jar –there was a surprising amount of liquid. Near the top of the jar I filled to the rim with the brine I had saved, and then had a much deserved beer. (note: I diid not weigh it down yet, which set up a preventable disaster.)

Packing the vegetables into the brine.

Packing the vegetables into the jar.

It was getting cool, so left the kim-chi in my study near a heater. The next morning I woke up could smell the garlic — the kim chi pot erupted all over my floor!

When the bacteria “eat” they produce CO2 which pushes any liquid UP and creates a small space between the once compacted vegetables.

Packing the vegetables into the brine.

Overflow. If you look carefully, you can see a bubble of CO2 breaking the surface.

I carefully took it to the sink and pushed the whole mass down with the potato masher and put a mason jar full of marbles on it. Even though the ferment had taken, I let it stay inside for three more days before putting it outside in a dark cupboard on the veranda. A week later I started eating it. Two weeks later I made the next 5 litre batch adding different vegetables, lessening the amount of chillies by half, and increased the garlic ginger.

A few weeks ago I finished that first jar and made the third. This time I went with even less red chilli and even more garlic and ginger I also used “sardines” from the Korean market in place of the fish sauce, a tip from a older woman in the Kim Chi Department at my local market.

Seoul, South Korea

Seoul, South Korea

lanterns in seoulDSCN0854

13 Comments on “The Kim Chi Department

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  6. Marbles… I came up with the same cheap solution. I used to dream about getting a Harsch crock, but its become clear to me glass works just as well.


    • Great minds think alike. 🙂

      I prefer glass, so I can see what’s going on inside. I’m really, really glad I did, too.In that first batch, the sauce and little bits of vegetable got stuck to the wall of the jar as I progressed through which could have — and did — mold. Now I know to wipe down the sides as I go down the jar.

      Here’s to glass jars. 🙂


  7. No matter how creative and intoxicating your culinary skills are, Steven, Kim Chi and brussel sprouts shall not touch my palate. I’m sure your innovative kitchen skills can tempt but I will respectfully pass on this creation. 🙂 Could I instead get a side of Yakitori?


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