Posted On: March 05, 2020
If you’ve ever had a bite of kimchi, and I mean real, authentic, traditional kimchi made by a Korean family (not the American versions that are now available in the health food stores and farmers’ markets), you’ll know that it’s truly a full-body, sensorial experience. To this day, whenever I even think of kimchi my mouth immediately salivates—truly a classic case of a Pavlovian response!
All my senses get fully activated as if I’m eating a big bite of it: the bubbly sweet and sour taste, the pungent smell of fermented vegetables, the aroma of garlic, ginger and red pepper, the cool and crisp feel in the mouth, the crunchy sound of each bite, and the bright Technicolor of red, white and green of the vegetables, all so vividly clear.
It’s this culture of kimchi, passed down from mother to daughter over dozens of generations that I hope to bring to you, so that you’ll not only get the great health benefits of kimchi, but you’ll enjoy it exactly as my mother and grandmother before her intended it to be eaten. I want you to experience that full-body sense of contentment that we Koreans call siwonhan-mat, an untranslatable term that means a “relief from pressure” or “physical calibration”, specifically after eating a delicious meal. If you’ve ever gone to a Korean restaurant or to a Korean friend’s house and had a meal, you’ll know this feeling well. I hope that my grandmother’s, mother’s and my own kimchi recipes will give you all of this and more.
Before we start making kimchi, it’s important to know everything you’ll need and what the actual process of making kimchi consists of. Fortunately, it’s very easy and not too time consuming, so the health benefits are really worth the effort you put in.
First, remember the basic kitchenware:
You’ll also need to check the recipe that you make each week before you do your grocery shopping. For instance, in week one of The Kimchi Diet, you’ll be making Cucumber Kimchi, so you’ll need to add cucumbers to the shopping list. However, there are some ingredients that nearly every kimchi recipe requires and that you’ll want to have on hand every week. They are:
It’s worth highlighting four ingredients in particular, because they’re so important: solar sea salt, red pepper coarse powder, garlic and ginger. They’re what I call the “superstar ingredients”, because they make kimchi taste exceptional, and each one also has specific functional superpowers! So before moving on, let’s go into a bit of detail on the benefits of these superstars.
Solar sea salt is produced naturally by solar evaporation in salt pans and has much higher concentrations of beneficial minerals such as magnesium, calcium and potassium than other types of salt. Please note that it’s very important to get solar sea salt, not only for the growth of lactic acid bacteria in kimchi, but also for the quality and flavor. Sensory analysis indicates that the texture and crunchiness in kimchi will be not be as optimal if refined salt or table salt is used. In addition, some sea salts are naturally high in sodium chloride and low in other healthy minerals. I can’t imagine making kimchi with table salt, which can be fortified with iodine. I don’t consider kimchi made with it as worthy of eating. I may be biased, but I like Korean sea salt the best! While salt gets a bad rap, a high salt diet helps to increase salt concentrations in the skin, providing increased protection from harmful microbial infections. The potassium in kimchi may also offset the risks of high blood pressure that sometimes occurs due to high salt consumption.
It’s best not to use salts that have been enriched with iodine (like many table salts), as it can affect your thyroid function. Brining and fermenting with regular table salt will make the kimchi vegetables soft and mushy. One of the qualities of good kimchi is the crunchy texture brought on by the osmolarity brining effects. Regular table salt may decrease the length of the kimchi’s preservation time as well. Instead of having the kimchi last for three to five months, it may spoil after a few weeks. Mineral content is also important for healthy bacterial growth.
Finally, there are some coarse sea salts that have not had the excess bitterns (bitter byproduct of salt production) removed, which will ultimately make bitter tasting kimchi. For this reason, I recommend you buy a few and see which one makes the best tasting kimchi. For generations, my family has been using Korean solar sea salt from Sinan Bay, South Korea, because it’s famous for its quality, research and manufacturing practices. It’s one of the top five tidal flats in the world. What’s more, it’s Kosher certified and carefully made by a natural drying method in a clean ocean environment that produces highly alkaline salt. It’s naturally high in essential minerals and is known for its superior taste—without bitterness. Some of this salt has been roasted at 800 degrees, making it free of pesticides, heavy metals, and radioactive waste products. But these versions do cost more.
If you’re unable to find Korean solar sea salt, then coarse, white Celtic sea salt would be my second choice.
Red pepper was introduced to kimchi making practices three hundred years ago to give kimchi a spicy, sweet and smoky pungent taste. Capsaicin, the active ingredient in red peppers, is what gives them functional and medicinal properties. Studies show that capsaicin promotes thermogenesis, which causes an increase in metabolism and expenditure of energy, potentially helping those with obesity. Red pepper is also a good source of antioxidants, with natural compounds including flavonoids, phenolic acids, carotenoids, vitamin A, ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and tocopherols. As discussed above, antioxidants help fight off the free radicals that are linked to aging and many diseases. Additionally, red pepper powder has a marked influence on the growth of LAB (lactic acid bacteria) in kimchi, such as the strain Weissella cibaria, so if you can handle a little spice, I absolutely recommend it for maximum probiotic benefit.
The amount of red pepper powder used in each recipe depends on the degree of spiciness you want, the coarseness of the powder and the type of kimchi you’re making. If too much is added while preparing the kimchi paste, you’ll pick up more bitter notes. The kimchi will also take longer to ferment, which will affect the optimal growth of the kimchi microbiome. As Korean scientists discovered in 2013, red pepper serves a very important role in extending the life of the kimchi by slowing the fermentation process. By adding red pepper powder, your kimchi will last longer—so don’t be afraid to use it! You can make milder tasting kimchi by reducing the amount of red pepper, but know that the fermentation time will be quicker, and the kimchi will need to be eaten in a timely manner. Also, without the red pepper you may have the urge to consume way more kimchi than your gut can handle, so make sure you don’t overdo it!
When buying Korean red pepper powder, look at the color and the coarseness of the flakes. The color needs to be red with a hint of dark orange. If the powder is more of an orange color, like a pumpkin, this indicates that it has been sitting on the shelf for a while and has likely oxidized. If the red pepper powder is a really dark red, like a maroon, it will make your kimchi dark, which will not be visibly appetizing. As for the coarseness of the red pepper powder, look for one where each flake size is around two millimeters in diameter. If it’s been milled down to a fine powder like paprika, it’ll oxidize faster and the paste consistency will be more like mud.
Finally, look for coarse red pepper powder that’s been grown in South Korea, rather than China. Although there’s a big difference in cost, you’ll appreciate the level of purity in the Korean version. On the package label, look for “Product of Korea” or “Origin: Korea”, rather than “P.R.O.C.”, “Origin: China”, “Chine” or “Product of China.”
No country on earth consumes more garlic per capita than Korea. In fact, I have never made kimchi without fresh garlic—manuel, as it’s called. My mother says that you can make any type of kimchi, as long as you have salt and garlic. Ginger, red pepper and pear bring more flavor to kimchi, but these are not essential ingredients the way that garlic is.
Garlic contains various medicinal compounds including allicin that are known to act as potent antioxidants. It also helps with lowering LDL cholesterol7 and has antibacterial properties.
The allicin compound found in garlic in particular has an inhibitory effect on the actions and life-cycle of strep bacteria, making it a very helpful ally for our immune system, according to Arzanlou’s 2016 study. Garlic has long been hailed as an immune tonic too. One study found that those who supplemented with one capsule of garlic daily suffered fewer viral infections during a four-month period and recovered more quickly than those taking a placebo. Not only is garlic an all-around superfood with a long list of health benefits, it’s also an important contributor in the growth of lactic acid bacteria in kimchi.
One amazing story I still hear periodically from my mother is how garlic saved her girlfriend’s life during the Korean War. When my mother was around eighteen years old, she had to flee down South from Inchon with her girl-friend’s family. During the harrowing journey, her friend contracted cholera, a deadly intestinal bacterial infection that killed most people back in those days. Her friend was close to death when her friend’s mother crushed two bulbs of fresh garlic, mixed them in with some rice porridge, and fed it to her daily for one week. Slowly, she began to improve. After a while on this garlic diet, her cholera symptoms and dysentery were completely cured. Korean people love the medicinal power of garlic and add it to every dish—including, of course—kimchi!
Ginger is a root of the Zingiber officinale plant that’s been used in traditional Korean and Chinese Herbal Medicine for centuries to alleviate nausea and vomiting, reduce pain, heal the digestive tract and treat the common cold. It’s also known as a powerful decongestant and antihistamine. Now science backs up many of these claims. Gingerols, potent compounds found in ginger, have been found to help with alleviating nausea, arthritis and pain, and have anti-inflammatory, anticancer, antimicrobial and anti-allergenic properties, as well as being protective against diabetes, heart disease and liver disease. There’s almost nothing that ginger can’t help with.
Not only is ginger a flavorful superstar ingredient for kimchi, it also has the amazing power to minimize the garlic smell in it. As mentioned earlier, add one-half a teaspoon of fresh ginger to hot water, or a quarter teaspoon of ginger powder to hot water, swirl it in the mouth and swallow. A few sips will remove the strong kimchi and garlic odor that some people experience.
This trick also works when washing out your dishes. To eliminate the kimchi odor from the glass jars, all you need to do is first clean the jars with soap and water, then fill them up with warm water. Add a half teaspoon of ginger powder to the clean water. Close it up with the lid on and turn it upside down for 24 hours. This way the lid can also be deodorized. You’ll be amazed at how fresh it smells afterwards!
One more important kimchi tip. In all of my kimchi recipes, the ratio of garlic to ginger is 2:1. Use twice as much garlic as ginger.