Food & Drink

World Eats: Kimchi

What’s made of cabbage, fermented, served as a daily tradition for more than 2,000 years, is served cold but is so spicy that you take another bite to cool your mouth?

Hint: It’s the national dish of Korea.

It’s kimchi, the extremely spicy recipe that may be a side dish but has mythical standing at the Korean table.

“It tastes good. It will make you live long,” says Byong Joo “B.J” Yu, owner of the gargantuan Koreana Plaza mega food store in Rancho Cordova. His store doesn’t merely offer kimchi. It displays it in a refrigerated case so large you feel as if you’re approaching the Great Wall of kimchi.

When Yu was growing up in Korea, he was served his mother’s homemade kimchi every day, Yu remembers. “It doesn’t matter how old the kimchi is. It’s good from the first day to as long as it lasts. You can eat it all the way – no waste.”

Because Korea is a cold country, cool weather-loving cabbage and radish (daikon) dominate the favored types of kimchi. What begins as a pickle morphs into a fermented form. Koreans famously place new kimchi in big black pottery jars and bury it in the ground to keep it at an even, cool temperature.

Yu continues to eat kimchi every day. “It makes your stomach comfortable,” Yu says.

Yu may not know why he’s right, but he is.

“There’s been a real emergence in the public, and a real mystique, about the wonders of fermented foods,” says Maria Marco, assistant professor in the UC Davis department of food science and technology.

Kimchi is a powerful vegetable probiotic, Marco says. It contributes health benefits in a manner similar to that provided by dairy probiotic foods such as yogurt.

“There’s a microbial zoo in there,” Marco says of kimchi. “The bacteria consume the sugars on the vegetable, and they spit out the organic acids, which are easily digested by our bodies,” Marco says, explaining that it aids digestion.

“The flavor profiles change, because the microorganisms continue to grow. It’s nature’s way of making food taste different.”

It’s also nature’s way of preserving food.

Yu says that about a year is enough for the flavor to change from something fresh, spicy and coleslaw-like to what Yu describes as sour. “Usually youngsters like the sour taste. As you get older, you prefer the fresh. I’m 57, and I still like it sour.” When kimchi is highly fermented, Yu says it’s served in cold soup.

At a Korean restaurant, kimchi is never ordered alone. It just shows up when you order your entree along with lots of other side dishes called banchan. Restaurant kimchi is invariably fresh.

It’s not hard to make kimchi, but it takes time. Napa cabbage (also called Chinese cabbage) is wilted in salted water several hours and rinsed well. Then, under each leaf is packed a marinade of Korean red pepper powder, sugar, a good deal of garlic and fresh ginger, shredded daikon and tiny shrimp. This marinade may have soy sauce or fish sauce, anchovy or dried oyster or a combination.

The most obvious ingredient, at least to the taste buds, is Korean red pepper powder. It is not cayenne or paprika but an incredibly hot member of the capsicum family called gochugaru, and it’s sold under a variety of brands in flakes or ground (coarse or medium).

For some, kimchi may be too spicy, but for Yu, there’s no such thing. “It’s not spicy to us.”

Kimchi is so readily available that it’s rarely made at home, he says. But at Koreana Plaza, it’s made on site every day. For beginners, Yu recommends picking up a small container of fresh kimchi either from Koreana’s kimchi counter or from among as many as six commercial brands in the refrigerated kimchi case (that great wall of kimchi).

Kimchi is typically mixed with other foods on the table, such as rice, noodles and stews. Recently I thinly sliced prepared kimchi and added it to basic American coleslaw with a mayonnaise dressing. This surprise ingredient keeps the cabbage theme while adding a vague sourness and an extreme hit of spice.