Pull out the map: Geography lesson adds color to class on making homemade kimchi

  • Top your kimchi with sesame seeds for added crunch.

    Top your kimchi with sesame seeds for added crunch. Courtesy of Leslie Meredith

Posted7/28/2021 6:00 AM

When cooking with kids, I find it helpful to pull out a map. The history of food and how geography and culture shaped dishes can require a few spins of the globe to unravel. For instance, I always thought that napa cabbage was a reference to the California wine region, but it comes from a Japanese term for leafy vegetables in general.

An ancient Korean superfood, "kimchi," refers to any fermented vegetable. Most common is the one made with napa or Chinese cabbage, called baechu kimchi. Packed with nutrition from ginger, pepper, garlic and cruciferous cabbage, and boosted by probiotics, this flavorful and versatile food supports digestion and immunity. I grew a bed of napa cabbage this year specifically so that I could make kimchi. I also have recipes for making kimchi with asparagus, radish, escarole, rapini, spring onion and parsnip -- any hearty green and sturdy root vegetable could work well.


Of course, you could always buy ready-made kimchi. But the flavor will never match the homemade version, and it's super easy to make.

A jar of freshly made kimchi.
A jar of freshly made kimchi. - Courtesy of Leslie Meredith

There are hundreds of kimchi recipes and probably thousands of variations that have been passed on among Korean families for generations. There is even a kimchi museum in Seoul. The debate on which is the best technique can get heated, too. Some insist on adding carrots, while others will scoff. Sometimes the radish is chopped. Other times it's shredded. The recipe here comes from my friend Grace, who learned it from her grandmother and has been helping make kimchi since she was a little girl. Grace and her boyfriend Nick hosted a kimchi demonstration at Farmhouse School's recent open house, and even the skeptics were converted.

The good news is that you have a lot of leeway in making your kimchi so that you can use easier-to-find ingredients or adjust the seasoning to suit your tastes. As with sourdough or sauerkraut, a little experimentation will help you perfect the approach that gives the best outcome in your particular kitchen, and that's part of the fun. Ultimately, you are seeking the harmonious blend of salty, tangy, crunchy and spicy. Your taste will be your guide.

Kimchi can be used in myriad ways. On its own, it makes a great side dish with Asian mains, especially with a sprinkle of sesame seeds. Mix it in with rice for a lightning-fast dinner; try it in tacos or layered in ham or grilled cheese sandwiches. I like it in scrambled eggs. Anything you'd enjoy with pickles or sauerkraut would be tasty with kimchi.

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A forkful of homemade kimchi and scrambled eggs.
A forkful of homemade kimchi and scrambled eggs. - Courtesy of Leslie Meredith

Many of the ingredients are readily available at general supermarkets. Napa or Chinese cabbage, for instance, is the oblong, pale green variety (though what I grew came in darker). It is thinner, more tender and sweeter than the tight round heads of common green cabbage.

A few items might require a trip to an Asian grocery store or an online order. I've written before about how much fun can be had at an Asian market, not just for the kids. But there are easy substitutes that, while not traditional, will work just fine in your first kimchi.

Daikon radish looks like a giant white carrot. It is milder than the peppery red radishes seen everywhere. If you can find a Korean radish or mu, all the better. Some farmers markets are selling watermelon radishes, which would be wonderful here, or you could even substitute turnips in a pinch.


Gochugaru is Korean chili pepper powder. It's similar to Hungarian paprika in its vibrancy and sweetness but with moderate heat. Look for the sun-dried types. Red chili or cayenne powder can be used instead, but be aware that they are much hotter, so use considerably less if you do.

Some of the ingredients needed to make homemade kimchi.
Some of the ingredients needed to make homemade kimchi. - Courtesy of Leslie Meredith

Making kimchi requires a lot of hands-on manipulation, which most kids seem to love. The daily check on the fermenting jars is also something curious kids will enjoy. As the good lactobacillus bacteria break down the sugar and starch, they produce carbon dioxide. The jars need to be burped to release some of that excess before they are stored in the fridge.

Cooking offers opportunities to learn more than just culinary skills. In the case of kimchi, there are short geography and microbiology lessons to be shared with the kids in your life, too. Letting them play an active role in the shopping, chopping and preparation will make it much more likely that they will try -- and enjoy -- this new food. May you enjoy expanding your foodie horizons together.

• Leslie Meredith is the winner of the 2019 Cook of the Week Challenge and teaches people how to grow and cook "real" food. She runs Farmhouse School on a historic homestead in Campton Hills. See the school's Facebook or Instagram pages @FarmhouseSchool or contact Leslie at food@dailyherald.com.

It's best to blend your kimchi ingredients with your hands.
It's best to blend your kimchi ingredients with your hands. - Courtesy of Leslie Meredith

Easy Kimchi

6 cups unchlorinated* water

1¼ cup coarse kosher salt (1 cup if using fine sea salt)

2 heads napa cabbage, cut into 1-inch pieces

½-1 cup gochugaru** (Korean chili pepper powder; adjust to suit your desired heat level)

1 daikon radish, cut into bite-sized pieces

6 scallions, greens included, roughly chopped

1 head of garlic, bulbs separated, peeled and minced

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced

4 tablespoons fish sauce

1 tablespoon sugar

Combine salt and water in a large bowl, stirring to dissolve. Add the cabbage pieces and toss well. Weigh down cabbage with a plate if needed to keep it beneath the surface of the brine, and let stand at room temperature for 4-8 hours, or until the cabbage softens.

Drain the cabbage, reserving a cup of brine.

In a large bowl, combine the remaining ingredients and mix thoroughly. Add the cabbage and mix well by hand, massaging as you go. Feel free to enjoy some of your kimchi now, before fermentation.

Transfer the remaining mixture into four quart-sized glass jars, packing it in firmly as you do so. (A Vitamix plunger, straight rolling pin, or back of a flat-ish spoon will help.) You want to remove any air pockets and leave 2-3 inches of head space in each jar.

Swirl the reserved brine around the bowl and use it to top up any jars where the vegetables are not fully submerged, then seal the jars tightly.

Rest at room temperature, away from direct light, for about 3 days. Fermentation is temperature-dependent, so it may take more/fewer days if your kitchen is especially cool or warm. Place on a tray or baking sheet to catch any spills. (The vegetables will release more liquid as they ferment.) Check your kimchi each day, removing the lid to allow excess carbon dioxide to escape, repressing the vegetables under the surface of the brine if necessary, and tasting for doneness. You want a bit of tang, but don't want the fermentation to turn the vegetables too soft. When it's deemed ready, put it in the fridge and eat within six months.

*Chlorine will impede the microbial activity needed for fermentation. Some water filters will remove chlorine, or you can set out a pitcher overnight or boil for 20 minutes, then cool (as hot water will also kill off the good bacteria.)

** You might experiment with the heat and start with a ½ cup and work your way up to 1 cup of gochugaru.

Makes about 4 quart-sized jars

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