Friday, 22 May 2015


A quick break from the avalanche of curries, because the cold / flu is still going strong, and a bowlful of kimchi is suddenly the most magical salty-chilli-gingery-garlicky elixir imaginable, and a brilliant fuschia-purple to boot. You know the way a spoonful of Branston pickle can make your mouth spasm in sudden pickle-lust? That's what kimchi does.

My cousin Nikka introduced me to fermenting foods, to which I responded with horror and deep skepticism. A very hypocritical response from someone who makes yoghurt (yes, that's fermentation too: you're cultivating the yoghurt bacteria), adores blue cheese (cheese mould: fermentation), glugs back wine (alcohol: fermentation), likes pickle and pickled onions so much I've been known to drink the pickled-onion juice from the jar... (Pickles: fermentation). So once I'd gotten over myself, I dropped the skepticism and started being a whole lot more interested.

That's the thing with fermented foods, though. Our own culture's fermentations seem perfectly ordinary food stuffs: yoghurt, blue cheese, sour dough bread, wine. Meanwhile other culutres' fermented foods - Japan's nattō (fermented soy beans), Sweden's surströmming (fermented herring) - seem a hideous aberration, rotten food and nothing more. When I taught EFL, I used to play a food game: what food from your country does everyone else think is disgusting? My South African example was biltong; my British example was Stilton. (I'll never forget watching my favourite Japanese student with a mouthful of Stilton. The unparallelled horror at what was in his mouth - the inability to spit it out - the hasty chewing, which only brought out more of the flavour - the gulping, to get rid of it - and then he opened, and drank, a litre of coke to wash away the taste.) Almost every time, students cited some kind of fermented food.

I think all these foods are just a question of acquired taste. (Although I have it on good Swedish authority that everyone thinks surströmming is disgusting.) I can recognise that kefir could be lovely, if you've acquired the taste, but we still refer to it, when we forget the name, as "that disgusting sour-milk thing Nikka tried to foist on us first thing in the morning." Even so, I can taste, simultaneously, sour milk that turns my stomach and a flavour I could learn to love, even crave. Kimchi, though, I loved from the first forkful she fed me; I can't get enough of it. Maybe her and my versions aren't as fermented as the Korean original, or maybe a love of things like Branston pickle means I've already acquired a taste for that mouth-spasming tang of deliciousness. Or maybe I just love anything with enough chilli, garlic, ginger, and salt!

I only started taking photos of this part way through, so I don't have a cast-shot of the ingredients, which are... 1 red cabbage, a handful of red radishes, 4 carrots, 2 onions, 8 cloves of garlic, 8 red chillis, and 6 tablespoons of fresh ginger which is about 3 inches. The recipe's from Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz (that link goes to his site), which is the Bible of fermentation, as I gather. He's very reassuring that you can muck about with exact ingredients and quantities as much as you like, according to what you do or don't have, how hot you like things, and so on. You'll also need 2 litres of water and 120ml of salt, to make a brine. (If you need more liquid to cover the veg - I did - then mix up more brine, with 60ml salt to 1 litre of water.) Also, this is one of those soak-things-for-ages recipes; so get the vegetables soaking in the brine the day before.

You'll need some big jars to put it in, too: I used two 3-litre Kilner jars. I'm not sure if they are actually Kilner, but that style. The jars need to be superclean. Ours usually go through the dishwasher, which I reckon is good enough; another way to make sure "clean" jars are perfectly sterilised is to put them in the oven at 120 degrees at least, for 20 minutes.

 The cabbage is dark and full of terrors...

Phase One: chop all the vegetables up - I went for slicing everything, but not dicing it, because it's hard to keep small pieces submerged and everything must stay submerged. Mix up your brine, 2 litres of water and 120ml of salt, and put all the sliced vegetables into the brine to soak. The recipe said "for a few hours or overnight", and until the vegetables were "soft". I did this at about midday and that evening couldn't discern any particular softness, so I left them overnight, and they still weren't soft, that I could tell. And even now, after 2 weeks fermenting, they're not soft. So just overnight should do it, I guess.

You want to keep all the vegetables submerged, and the vegetables want to float, so find something to hold them underwater. After much experimenting, I found a dinner plate fitted our stock pot exactly, and a freezer zip-bag full of water made a perfect weight:

Already, that striking purple colour to the brine. Beautiful!

 The next day: now for the paste bit! The garlic, chillis, and ginger all need to be chopped and crushed nice and fine, so I'm slicing them all up first...

It's just beautiful. The colours!

And when I come out of my admiring-ingredients trance,  I'm chopping them all up as fine as I can, with the mezzaluna. (Or use a sharp curved-blade knife, hold the front down, and swing it back and forth as you chop rapidly.)

Drain the vegetables, keeping the brine.  I've got a colander on top of another large pot, there. You can see stray vegetables that have escaped.

More striking colours, this time a very different palette - something from the tail-end of autumn, perhaps. You're going to mix the chilli-garlic-ginger into the vegetables.

Doesn't this just look extraordinary? The most ordinary, British vegetables - carrots, cabbage, radish, onion - and yet suddenly they're looking like an exotic seaweed.

Stir it all very well together. The next thing will be to put the vegetables in the big jars, and then fill them up with the brine (that's why you kept it).

I briefly tried using a ladle to put the vegetables in the jars, but that was very awkward and clumsy, and I realised...

I have hands. Hands are good at things like this. Very very clean hands, mind: if you're going to ferment foods, don't bugger about with using dirty hands, dirty jars, or dirty anything. Squeaky-clean all the way!

My two jars, well stuffed with the vegetables, and now the ladle does come in handy, to add the brine.

Once I'd filled them up with brine, I stirred it around a bit, to make sure any trapped air bubbles came to the top. I used a fork, but a chopstick would've been even better; I just don't know where our chopsticks have got to.
I ended up with about a litre and a half of lovely purple brine left over and couldn't think of any good use for it. I couldn't even use it to water the garden, as plants don't like salt water - so we poured it over the weeds, in the end.

Again, the vegetables need to be weighted down, so they stay submerged below the surface. After trying various things (a bit like that children's spatial-awareness non-toy, where you poke different shapes into the ball), I discovered that ramekins were exactly the right size. Plus taking them out is easy, as I can just put my fingers inside the ramekin.

A perfect fit!

And then... they sit on the counter, for a week or more.  Every day, you lift out the weight (mind to rest it on something clean!), stir it a bit, see if any bubbles are coming up, and have a taste. At first I thought I'd used far too much salt. By about day 3, though, the saltiness had started to subside, as the other flavours took over. The bubbles are a sign it's fermenting. I put this batch in the fridge after a week, which was too soon - I was following the recipe exactly, instead of playing it by ear as I should've been - at which point it tasted very nicely of chilli, garlic, and ginger, but didn't have that extra magical pickle taste. I consulted with my guru, Nikka, who said I'd interrupted the fermentation too soon and should take it back out, and let it carry on. So I did.

It's a very beautiful addition to the counter. One visitor thought the design was printed onto the jars, not food inside them!

After two weeks, everything is a deep fuschia-purple colour, and that magic picklish taste is starting to come through. Meanwhile, half the kimchi from the tall thin jar has "evaporated"! (All those tastings... All those mornings when a quick mouthful to check wasn't quite enough...) So I'm starting to eat from the tall thin jar (officially, that is) and letting the other jar carry on fermenting longer, stirring and checking it every day.

And today, with a terrible cold and feeling thoroughly rotten, nothing could be better than a bowlful of this.

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