For one reason or another, kimchi has stood on the sidelines of the American palate while countless other global flavors and condiments burst onto the scene. The funky, spicy fermented Korean concoction seemed destined for its day in the culinary sun, but something always took its place. Sriracha. Miso. Fish sauce. Exotic Asian flavors clearly had a foothold within the expanding appetites of Americans, but kimchi stayed in the back of the line … until now.
Chefs, foodies, locavores and especially vegetarian/vegan/gluten-free eaters have come around to kimchi in a big way, busting the boundaries of an ancient dish that had been more about preservation than anything else. The dish has evolved over the thousands of years it has been around, but now is most commonly known as fermented cabbage doused with a garlicky, spicy red chili paste. Although kimchi can be made with any vegetables - much like pickles can - cabbage has become the standard for kimchi. Think cabbage is to kimchi as cucumbers are to “pickles.”
Why The Buzz?
So why the recent kimchi boom? There are several reasons, the foremost being an increased interest in (and exposure to) Korean food as a whole within America. As new flavors continue to be sought out by American eaters, Korean food stands alone in its use of fermented ingredients, pickled ingredients, spice and countless other vegetal condiments. If you’ve been to a Korean restaurant, your table has likely been filled with upwards of two dozen tiny bowls, ramekins and plates of just condiments. Meant to be eaten either by themselves or in tandem with your food, these condiments can make each bite taste entirely different than the last. Kimchi is the cornerstone of this process, which brings us to the next factor: Funk.
Fermentation is a concept that chefs across America and the world are whole-heartedly embracing, as it’s a way to transform an ingredient into something entirely different. David Chang, perhaps the most influential chef of his generation, even has a fermentation lab and company looking to expand the science and perception behind the practice. Scientifically, fermentation is when, over long periods of time, microorganisms and bacteria (the healthy kind) work their magic on the sugars of vegetables, grains or whatever else they’re introduced to. This process releases gases in the foods, and in the case of kimchi, produces lactic acid, which lends that tangy sourness that smacks you in the mouth upon your first bite. These acids also help keep said vegetables from spoiling. Because it’s essentially an ongoing science experiment, different conditions, ingredients and even different batches of vegetables will yield entirely unique batches of kimchi, all with that assertive, funky umami flavor that chefs crave.
Finding or Making It
With the recent rise in kimchi’s popularity, supermarkets of all stripes are now stocking the condiment – you’ll find it in the refrigerated section – whereas, say, five years ago you likely had to visit an Asian grocer to find it. Health food stores are also big on kimchi because of its nutritional value (very low calories, lots of vitamins and tons of probiotics and microorganisms that promote digestion). There, you might find cabbage kimchi alongside things like zucchini, cucumber or radish kimchi.
Contrary to wives’ tales, you don’t have to bury a barrel or jar of kimchi in your backyard to properly ferment it – though that’s still an acceptable method. You can do it in your kitchen with air-tight glass jars, as this Food52 recipe details. The good part about making it at home is you can customize it to your taste: If the store-bought stuff is too spicy or not spicy enough, adjust the amount of chili paste you put in. If you want to up the funk factor, use more fish sauce or shrimp paste. Just note: This isn’t a make-it-day-of type of dish, as it should ferment for at least about a week before eating.
For some, straight kimchi can be a bit much, so try dishes like kimchi fried rice, where kimchi is chopped up or pureed and incorporated into the rice over the high heat of a wok. The chili and fermentation liquids coat the rice, giving the dish a bold and powerful flavor without overwhelming it.