I’d always been a little nervous about making kimchi, Korea’s glorious version of sauerkraut. Kimchi, if you’ve never eaten it, is essentially the national dish of Korea, is eaten with everything and comes in myriad forms. Every Korean I’ve ever met is a self-described authority on kimchi, much the way Italians are with pasta or the way New Jerseyans and New Yorkers are with pizza and bagels.
So it was with great trepidation that I served my friend Helen Lee some of my homemade kimchi some months ago. When she ate it, her eyes widened. “Wow! This is really good! It actually has the kimchi aftertaste!” Helen explained that good kimchi is fermented for quite a long time, and it develops a particular aftertaste, as well as a slight fizziness from the ferment. This is what separates “real” kimchi from kimchi-flavored crap, she said.
Buoyed by Helen’s vote of confidence, I made more kimchi. What is it, you ask? Well, it is a vegetable of some sort — usually cabbage, daikon or green onions — fermented with salt, soy or fish sauce, garlic, ginger and LOTS of chiles. It sits around for anything from a few days to a year, melding flavors and generally doing its microbial thing. When you eat it, it is a nuclear bomb of flavor. Pungent, picante and powerful all at once. A little goes a long way. Unless you are Korean, in which case you can eat tubs of the stuff.
I like it next to bland foods like steamed rice, simply cooked meat and fish — especially bass and catfish — and in kimchi dumplings. It’s really good with bulgogi, that other national dish of Korea, too.
This recipe is for pa kimchi, or green onion kimchi. Koreans use scallions or other green onions, which you can of course use, but I prefer to use wild onions like ramps, the Sierra wild onions we get at high elevations, or three-cornered leeks, which are an invasive species around these parts. Everyone reading this has some sort of wild onion living near you, so give this recipe a go this spring. It will be ready right when you break out the grill.
Wild Onion Kimchi
This is a pretty traditional style of Korean kimchi, made with green onions of some sort. It really doesn’t matter what kind you use: Scallions, green onions, ramps, or in my case, Allium triquetrum, the three-cornered leek. This green onion is invasive in California, so I like to eat as much of it as I can.
This is a fermented pickle, with no vinegar, so you need to follow the instructions closely when it comes to salt, or in this case fish sauce. You can use soy sauce in place of fish sauce, but it won’t be the same. The salt level kills most spoilage bacteria while letting the good bacteria thrive. You literally want to see a little bit of fizzy action going on with this kimchi when it’s ready.
Storing it in the fridge radically slows the fermentation, and once made this kimchi will keep for several months. Just be sure to eat some every few weeks — or at least open the lid. Pressure will slowly build up in the jar, and you will need to relieve that.
Serve the kimchi alongside mild meats such as fish or chicken, or as a condiment with rice or other foods. It’s also good minced and stuck inside a dumpling.
Makes 3 to 4 pints.
Prep Time: 1 hour
Cook Time: 3 days, which is fermentation time, not cooking.
- 1 1/2 pounds green onions
- 1 cup kosher salt
- 6 cups water, divided
- 2 tablespoons rice flour
- 1/2 cup fish sauce
- 1/4 to 1/2 cup cayenne or Korean chile powder
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 tablespoon sesame seeds
- 3 tablespoons minced garlic
- 2 tablespoons minced ginger
- Make sure all the green onions are clean. If the tops have not been trimmed, cut off about 1 to 2 inches of the top green part, which is very stringy. Dissolve the kosher salt into 5 cups of water. Soak the green onions in the water for 1 hour.
- Meanwhile, bring the other cup of water to a boil and whisk in the rice flour. Turn off the heat and keep stirring until the flour is totally incorporated into the water. Let this cool while the onions soak.
- When the rice flour mixture is cool, mix in the remaining ingredients and put everything in a very large bowl or a rimmed baking sheet.
- Take each onion and, if you want, wrap the green end around the white part to make each onion more compact; most Korean recipes do this. Alternatively, you can chop them coarsely.
- Put on some latex or rubber gloves if you have them, because you’re gonna get messy. Mix the onions with the spice mixture so they are completely coated, then cram them into quart Mason jars. Leave about 3 to 4 inches headspace. You can take your gloves off now. Find a smaller jar or some sort of clean weight — I used narrow jelly jars — and fill it with water. Use this smaller jar to weigh down the kimchi in the Mason jar so it is totally submerged. Let these jars sit in a cool, dark place (cool room temperature is perfect) for at least 3 days, and up to 2 weeks.
- To store, remove the smaller jars and redistribute the kimchi into wide-mouth pint jars. Cap and refrigerate for up to 6 months.