Friday, December 4, 2015

Pickled Cabbage, Kimchi, First Steps

There are lots of reasons to enjoy food preparation. In addition to producing something that people can enjoy, the process itself can be pleasant and fun.

This is true whether the cooking is challenging or simple. When it’s challenging, the process can provide the satisfaction of mastering something hard. When it’s simple, then sometimes it’s about witnessing a miraculous, synergistic, seemingly alchemical process.

The latter is what I’m up to today.

Making kimchi is ridiculously simple: Basically, you just throw a bunch of stuff together in a bowl, and let it sit. But the results are bafflingly good, thanks to some biochemical “miracles.” In lactic acid fermentation, naturally occurring bacteria convert carbohydrates (sugars) in the cabbage into lactic acid, raising the acidity of the whole, which helps preserve the cabbage. The process of brining softens the cabbage and also helps preserve it. Both the fermentation and the brining make it tasty!

In addition to being a practical, cheap, no-cook method of preserving and flavoring foods, lactic acid fermentation—when you do it at home and don’t heat-sterilize the jars—provides so-called probiotics that assist and improve your digestion. It’s very similar to the process that creates yogurt, sourdough bread, Japanese miso, and many other dishes.

To our ancestors, to our grandparents, this method of pickling was a boon for surviving and enjoying winter. Fruits and vegetables had to be preserved, if you wanted them at all. In western Europe, fresh cabbage was turned into sauerkraut. In Korea, China, and other southeast Asian lands, kimchi and its variants were about the same thing, only flavored differently—with ginger, garlic, green onions, chilis, soy and/or fish sauce, and so on.

In Europe, the finished kraut can be served straight up, or it can be drained, rinsed, and drained again, then simmered with sautéed onions, tomatoes, and/or chicken stock, flavored with such things as juniper berries, caraway seeds, peppercorns, and bay leaves. Meat, such as pork chops or sausage, can be cooked in a bed of this kraut. Or you can make sauerkraut salads or other dishes out of it, using drained kraut as an ingredient and not an entire dish in itself.

I hear it’s pretty much the same way in Asia, where kimchi can be served right out of the crock, or it can be sautéed or otherwise further prepared, and used in other dishes.

I’ve often entertained fanciful ideas about the parallels of Germany and Korea—proud mainland nations divided into two by war, yet united in language, culture, and family ties; nations historically dominated by a hard-working peasant agriculture economy, now transformed into industrial powerhouses; nations whose most famous (or notorious!) dish is funky, fermented, pickled cabbage. Isn’t that interesting? Do you suppose there are other shared cultural characteristics, as well—a similar mind-set, similar outlooks and attitudes?

Anyway—my musings aside—a friend gave me her brother’s recipe for kimchi, and I’m finally trying it!

I’ve never made kimchi or sauerkraut before, and I’ve been wanting to try making both for a long time. Especially once I figured out that homemade krauts are much tastier than the “store-boughten” kind!

Last night, I chopped up a big head of Napa cabbage and set it to soak in a salt solution (brine) overnight. This morning, I combined the various ingredients, packed it in two quart-size wide-mouth jars, “sealed” them loosely with a plastic bag of water, so bubbles can escape . . . and now we wait.

If it turns out well, and if my friend says it’s okay with her, I’ll share her recipe with you!

More to come!

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