Friday, March 4, 2011

Fermentation -- Alive and Bubbling

A friend of mine recently turned up her nose at my endeavor to make kimchi -- that bastion of Korean cuisine that ferments numerous vegetables, spices and salt into a savory staple. She thought a) it was way too much work and b) that fermenting anything just meant that it was rotten.

On the contrary to my contrary friend, fermentation is an ancient practice of preserving and improving foodstuffs. In fact, our bodies crave the healthy bacteria that form when food is fermented.

While many more people have likely tried making homemade wine (fermented grapes) or beer (fermented barley) recently, there is a bit of a renaissance around my community in fermenting other foods. Recently the Eco-Village  ( put on a course for making Sauerkraut and Kombucha. Kefir and yogurt is made by many, so it isn't really much of a stretch to try out kimchi.

When my daughter and I went to northern Japan in 2001, it was kimchi not sushi that was most predominant on the menu. Not only is kimchi inexpensive to make in a market where food is very costly, but it is incredibly flavourful, easy, and great for your body.

Fermented foods, according to Sandor Katz my fermentation guru, "are quite literally alive with flavor and nutrition" (Wild Fermentation pg. 5). And he is quite right. The flavour from fermented foods is unparalleled. A good sauerkraut can enliven even the dullest mashed potato. It is a tonic for the body carrying massive vitamin C and microbes that help supply vital cultures to your digestive system. Come on now, many of you already eat live culture yogurt from the store so don't be afraid. Add to that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization confirms that fermentation improves the bioavailability of minerals in food They are, quite basically, more available to be absorbed by your body (Wild Fermentation pg 6).

Fermented food is not rotten. It is transformed. Yes it takes some time and preparation. But it is not wasted labour. A spoonful of sauerkraut daily energizes me.  The fact that I can produce it on my counter with limited effort, watch it transmutate from shredded cabbage to something quite other is remarkable.

A jar of kimchi now sits proudly beside my sauerkraut, bubbling away while all else in the world seems dormant. The smells from it are wonderful. Heady with garlic, ginger and chilis, it is a creative concoction of chinese cabbage, bok choy, leeks, daikon, red radish, and carrot -- all things that can be grown in my garden and preserved for the long winters without fresh. It is a fragrantly welcome addition to our sufficiency lifestytle.

Here is the recipe for Kimchi as given by Sandor Katz. His book Wild Fermentation is a gem of information on fermenting all types of food and a really good read.

Baechu (Cabbage) Kimchi: Timeframe 1 week or longer

For 1 quart of Kimchi:

Sea Salt
1 lb/500 grams Chinese Cabbage
1 daikon radish (and/or red radishes)
1 to 2 carrots
1 to 2 onions and/or leeks and/or a few scallions and/or shallots (or more)
3-4 cloves garlic
3 to 4 hot red chilis or 3-4 tsps of chili flakes depending on your taste
3 tbp fresh grated ginger

1. Mix a brine of about 4 cups water (non-chlorinated) and 4 tbsp of salt. Stir well to dissolve.
2. Coarsely chop the cabbage, slice the radish and carrots and let the vegetables soak in the brine overnight.
3. Prepare spices. Grate the ginger; chop the garlic and onion; remove seed from fresh chilis. Kimchi can absord a lot of spice so play with it.
4. Drain brine off vegetables, reserving the brine. Taste the vegetables. If too salty, rinse with cool water. If you can't taste the salt, sprinkle with a couple teaspoons of salt and mix.
5. Mix the vegetables with the ginger-chili-garlic-onion paste. Mix everything together thoroughly and stuff it into a clean quart-size jar. Pack it tightly into the jar, pressing down until the brine rises. If necessary, add a little of the brine to submerge the vegetables. Weight the vegetables down with a smaller jar or a zip-lock baggie filled with brine. Or if you think you can remember to check the kimchi every day, you can just use your (clean!) fingers to push the vegetables back under the brine.
6. Ferment in your kitchen or other warm place. Taste the kimchi every day. After about a week of fermentation, when it tastes ripe, move it to the refrigerator. An alternative and more traditional method is to ferment kimchi more slowly and with more salt in a cool spot, such as a hole in the ground, or a cellar or other cool place.

Give it a try. I am sure you will be pleased with the results!


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