When I was a little guy my dad lived on the other side of the world in a distant land called South Korea, otherwise referred to as, “I don’t know, somewhere,” by my mom. During this time my mom told me a story about his Korean girlfriend and how, after a heated argument, she chased him with a shiv and threatened to stab him. I was never told the details of why she came after my dad, so I was lead to believe this woman was dangerously unhinged. My mom also never filled me in that he and lady shank had split, so when I heard news that he was coming to visit I was naturally terrified. For years later I was interested to see if all Korean women had such short and violent tempers, but I’ve yet to develop the nerve to test out that theory.
On his arrival, he and my mom went to the grocery store to pick up some of his brand of beer, favorite snacks, and other things to make his stay a little more comfortable. When they returned, he pulled out a bottle with the word KIMCHI sprawled across the front, and I was very curious.
When he first opened the bottle of kimchi, the smell creeped up and slapped me square in the face. I shot back about a foot and asked him if he farted. Kimchi has that effect on people, but you shouldn’t ever let that dissuade you from trying it, because in spite of it’s putrid smell, it’s really, really tasty stuff.
For anyone who’s questioning what it is at this point, kimchi is more or less fermented and pickled vegetables. It’s generally made with cabbage or white radishes (if you’re going for the basic, traditional kind), and ingredients usually include ginger, Korean red pepper powder, paprika, garlic, onion, salt and fish sauce.
Are you turned off yet? Don’t be. You wouldn’t think it, but kimchi is actually very good for you. I won’t geek out too much about this, but the fermentation of the vegetables makes it chock-full of lactic acid bacteria (probiotics — similar to what is in yogurt, which is the stuff you want in you). It helps with digestion and can even alleviate issues with gastrointestinal issues such as IBS, IBD and other incredibly appetizing acronyms.
When my dad introduced that smelly, delicious dish into my life, I was changed forever. Up until this point I had only bought the store-made brand, but figured that making spicy, fermented cabbage really couldn’t be all that difficult. Could it?
Over the weekend I went to gather supplies for my kimchi and visited a small Asian market that was conveniently placed less than a mile from my house. I’d never really noticed it before since it was tucked in the corner of an empty-looking strip mall and looked closed from the outside, except for a small note on the door that read OPEN.
I walked inside and heard a shout from the back of the store almost immediately, “HELLO!? Who there?”
A short Japanese woman with a cropped bob and an oversized cat t-shirt stepped into view and grinned at me like she was in on some sort of secret that I wasn’t allowed to know. I asked her if she had any Korean red pepper powder, and she led me to a freezer filled with mochi, frozen fish heads and a purple liquid I didn’t even think to ask about. The bottle was huge and only $5, so I’m thinking, SCORE! I took out my cards and she called over to me in a sing-song tone, “fifteen dollaaaaars, need fifteeeeen to pay with card!”
I told the clerk I would be back after I pulled out cash, which was really my cover to leave in an amicable way to search the regular grocery store for my supplies. No matter how much I tried to justify it, I couldn’t bring myself to buy that much Pocky. I couldn’t!
After 2 hours and a highly unsuccessful venture to two different grocery stores, I returned to the Asian market with $5 in cash and the smell of shame radiating off of me.
The same cute clerk looked up from her paper with her toothy grin and said with as much excitement as anyone has ever greeted me before, “you’ve come back!!”
Without missing a beat, her expression immediately dropped into a suspicious glare and, as though she knew where I had been, she whispered over her thin-rimmed glasses, “it took you so, so long….”
I grabbed my large bottle of cooled red pepper powder and wondered how, exactly, am I going to pull this off. I always tend to mess up a recipe the first time I try it, and I can sense that this time will be no different.
While ringing me out, she looked up at me , grinned slyly, and asked, “you make kimchi, huh?”
I asked her if it was really that obvious.
She said yes, it really was.
And like a mind reading savior, she started spouting off tons of golden, unsolicited kimchi-making advice! Our conversation went a little something like this:
- Her: You soak the napa [cabbage] yet?
- Me: It’s soaking at home right now, actually.
- Her: Good, do that.
- Me: Um, I will do that! Then I just have to salt them again.
- Her: What? Why? TOO SALT. Much too salt if you do that. After you soak, taste the nappa and if it too salt, add less fish sauce.
- Me: Really? I didn’t know that! I would’ve just added a whole bunch not even knowing what I was doing!
- Her: Hahahahahaha yeah, no. Don’t do that.
Traditionally kimchi is left on the counter for a few hours to a few days to let it ferment and brew, but in spite of this tradition, the clerk advised against it.
“It make kimchi too sour. You like sour? Do it. You want fresh with big crunch, put it in the cooler and let it sit.”
So I took my loot home and began what was to be my VERY FIRST batch of homemade kimchi, and I had huge expectations.
Maybe my expectations were too large, because…well, let me explain.
While reading the various directions on how to make kimchi, I saw one constant through each recipe, and that was to leave the kimchi sitting out on the counter between 5 to 48 hours and then refrigerating it for another day or two before digging in. Every. Single. Recipe. I decided at that point that 10 different recipes were right and my “savior” didn’t have a clue as to what she was talking about.
After I let it sit in the fridge for two days, I excitedly opened up my bottle of kimchi, dug in, and immediately gagged before it even hit my tongue.
The fishy taste surprisingly overpowering and not the least bit appetizing.
Now, granted I’ve only ever had American-made, store-bought kimchi, so my kimchi may actually be authentic and my taste buds are just spoiled, though I doubt that’s the case. Maybe it’s because I’ve let it ferment on the counter too long? Or maybe it’s because I’ve never taken solid advice and put it to practical use. When will I learn?! WHENNN?
So here I sit with two large Mott’s Applesauce jars full of kimchi that are practically inedible, and in my mind I can see the Japanese clerk shaking her head in an I-told-you-so disapproving manner. And since I can’t very well share with you my kimchi recipe until I’ve perfected it (or, at the very least, have made it edible), I will include another Korean recipe I made over the weekend that was a success: Beef Bulgogi.
Luckily, I can’t be defeated that easily. Once I’ve finished crying over my disgraceful kimchi, I’ll try again. And this time, I will heed the words of – and do right by – that cat-shirt-wearing, boy-cut-sporting goddess.
Bulgogi consists of two Korean words: Bul, which means fire, and Gogi, which means meat. Put them together you get Fire Meat, which sounds both sexy and alarming. Bulgogi, in short, is basically Korean marinated and barbecued beef that’s been thinly sliced and tastes spicy, with a little bit of tanginess, but only if you enjoy Asian pear in your recipe and using run-on sentences.
Time: 3 hours, including marinating time.
- 1 1/2 pounds of flank steak
- 3 scallions (and one extra for presentation)
- 1 Asian pear (or Bosc pear if unavailable)
- 4 tbsp of good quality soy sauce
- 4 tbsp sugar
- 2 tbsp sesame oil
- 2 tsp black pepper
- 1 tsp sesame seeds
- 2 minced garlic cloves
- 1 tbsp of lemon juice
- Before prepping your marinade, put your flank steak in the freezer for a couple of hours so it gets solid, but not too frozen that it’s difficult to cut through. The idea is to freeze it enough so you can shave off strips of steak, as you want to make sure the strips are as paper-thin as possible.
- For the marinade, finely slice the scallions and pear and combine with the soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, sesame seeds, black pepper, garlic and lemon juice.
- After you’ve thinly sliced the flank steak, add the slices to the marinade, mix well, and put in the fridge to marinate for around two hours.
- Grill or pan cook the beef to desired doneness.
Normally you will want to grill your bulgogi, as that is the idea behind “fire meat.” However, since I live in an apartment complex that forbids the use of a grill, I just add a tablespoon of sesame or canola oil to a frying pan and sauté the beef until it’s good and browned on both sides.
Once complete, serve over rice and share with friends. Or do what I did and horde it.