A Taste Memory Resurrected by a Grandmother's Kimchi Recipe

My first taste of kimchi was a revelation…salty, acidic, crunchy, and searingly spicy with the heat from Korean red chiles. I still salivate at the memory of it.

The fermentation pots, or onggi, on the roof of my host family's home.

It was made by the mother of my host family in Daejon, South Korea, having fermented in loosely covered clay pots, called onggi, on the flat, exposed roof of their home alongside other mysterious concoctions that drew my curiosity with their richly funky, exotic smells, aromas that were as foreign to my middle-class American palate as tuna noodle casserole and Swiss steak would be to my host family.

I seem to recall the family eyeing me suspiciously as I lifted the chopsticks containing that first bite to my lips, not sure how the big American girl they'd taken into their home might respond. Would she scream? Gag? Run out of the room?

They were probably relieved, if maybe a bit disappointed, that none of those happened, though I remember my lips burning by the end of the meal of fish, wok-seared greens and kimchi. It helped that there was plenty of rice and traditional scorched-rice tea (sungnyung) to help mitigate the fire of the chiles, but I was intrigued.

Gochugaru, coarse ground red pepper, is a critical ingredient.

Since that college trip I've been wanting to recreate the taste that was almost literally seared into my memory 40 years ago, and my experiences with fermentation made me pretty confident I could do it without killing or sickening my friends or family.

So when I found out that my friend Denise was willing to help me make it from the recipe her sister had transcribed from her mother Betty Ann's recipe—one that Betty Ann had learned from her mother, Annie—I was all in. (Read the story of Annie Mah's odyssey and get her recipe for gochujang.)

It began with Denise and I making a trip to one of the city's many large Asian supermarkets to get the coursely ground Korean red peppers, or gochugaru, that is the critical ingredient in kimchi, one that cannot be substituted if your goal is to make the real deal. I'd already picked up the Napa cabbage, daikon and carrots, my preferred mix of vegetables—though the recipe just calls for five pounds of whatever suits your tastes.

Remarkably simple, Denise's family recipe is fairly mild as kimchi goes, confirmed when her relatives sampled my second attempt in which I'd upped the cayenne quotient, making it more like the version I'd had in Korea. Mind you, they liked it, but as her Aunt Else said afterwards, clapping me on the shoulder, "You make it like a Korean would!"

High praise, indeed!

Kimchi (Kim Chee)

Adapted from Betty Ann della Santina's recipe by her daughter, Cynthia Forsberg.

For the brined vegetables, any of the following, about five pounds total:
Daikon, shredded or chunked
Napa or green cabbage, chunked

After brining the vegetables above overnight, add as many of these as you want:
Green onions, sliced in half or quarters lengthwise, cut crosswise in 2 to 3-inch lengths
Yellow onions, chunked
Carrots, shredded

For the paste:
1/2 c. fine to medium crushed Korean red pepper flakes (gochugaru)
3-inch piece ginger peeled and grated (with juice)
5-7 large juicy garlic cloves, crushed
2-3 Tbsp. shrimp powder, shrimp paste, or fish sauce, or a combination
2 tsp. sugar
1/2 c. water (only enough to make into paste)

Soak cabbage and daikon in brine of 1 c. salt mixed in one gallon water for 14-24 hours. The next day, rinse thoroughly in cold water. Drain vegetables and press out most of the remaining water.

Red pepper paste.

Mix together red pepper (gochugaru), grated ginger, crushed garlic, shrimp powder (or fish sauce), sugar in a large bowl with just enough water to make a thick paste. 

Add brined and cut vegetables to the paste and mix thoroughly. Press into clean wide-mouth quart (or pint) jars. Press down firmly, allowing 1" space at top, and close the lid tightly, allow to ferment at least 24 to 36 hours on the counter.

[Fermentation time can vary depending on temperature and other factors. I allowed mine to sit in the basement for 5 to 7 days, and started to taste it after the third day until it had developed the "funky" taste I wanted. - KB]

Store in refrigerator.

Going Where (Almost) No One Has Gone Before: Kimchi Risotto?

If nothing else, this pandemic has taught me to not be so slavishly obedient to the dictates of a recipe, and to trust my own tastes in flavoring dishes. That's because I haven't been able to run to the store for an exotic ingredient, or dash out when the yen for a special dish pings my brain's rolodex, or even to simply give up on a recipe, thinking I don't have everything the instructions call for.

Five-allium risotto? Why not?

Cooking every day—like everyone else, we're WFH or, in Dave's case, retired—means sometimes making three meals a day from a pantry that gets refreshed only a couple of times a week. For daily shoppers like we used to be in what are being quaintly referred to as "the before times," it's meant we've had to be more creative, more flexible and not so darn fussy. You might say we've been developing our dancing-in-the-kitchen muscles, while trying not to sacrifice deliciousness to expedience.

Not that every experiment or adaptation has been a smashing success, mind you. But the five-allium risotto made with  the yellow onion, green onion, shallot, leek, and garlic we had on hand when there was no chicken in the fridge? Or the mapo tofu made with some admittedly inauthentic ingredients? Or the sausage and pasta casserole when we didn't have enough sausages for grilling? They were all pretty dang good!

Not enough sausages for the whole family? Make a casserole!

So it was, when yesterday evening I found we only had three-quarters of a jar of Choi's kimchi and most of a leftover grilled pork chop to work with. To be honest, I'd actually been itching to try a kimchi risotto, just because it sounds so weird, and our nearly empty veg bin was the perfect excuse. How bad could it be? (Insert winking emoji here…)

Turns out it was actually easy as heck, and more of an umami bomb than you usually get from a traditional risotto. From the reaction of the diners I'd say it'll be appearing again regardless of the state of our pantry.

You can't ask for more than that from an impromptu dance in the kitchen!

Kimchi Risotto

3 Tbsp. butter
3 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1/2 yellow onion, diced fine
3 cloves garlic
1 1/2 c. arborio rice
4 c. chicken or vegetable stock, warmed on the stove
2 c. prepared Napa cabbage kimchi plus 1/4 c. brine
2 c. cooked pork or chicken (or substitute 1 lb. ground pork, sautéed)
1 Tbsp. fish sauce
Salt to taste
Red chile oil for drizzling

Heat butter and oil in a large pot over medium heat until the butter melts and starts to bubble. Add onion and garlic and sauté until the onion is translucent. Add the rice and sauté for about 3 minutes or so—each end of the rice grains should be slightly translucent.

Add a ladle-full of stock with the kimchi brine and stir until it's almost all absorbed, then add another ladle of stock and stir until it absorbs. Continue adding stock, and when you've ladled in about half the stock, stir in the chopped kimchi and cooked meat. Keep adding stock and stirring until the rice is al dente or still has a nice texture without being crunchy. Stir in the fish sauce and salt to taste. Serve with a drizzle of red chile oil.

I separated a head of cauliflower into small florets (adding the chopped stalk and leaves), mixed in olive oil and garlic, then roasted it on a baking sheet in a 375° oven while I made the risotto. When it was browned nicely, I served it alongside the risotto as in the top photo.