It’s not cake – it’s kimchi!

Contrary to popular belief I don’t eat cake all the time. I like baking and eating cake, but recognise that a daily cake habit is probably not something that anyone would recommend as part of a healthy lifestyle.

It’s becoming more and more clear that maintaining a healthy gut biome is important for overall health – both mental and physical. And although we would all like to think that cake plays a major part on this it seems that sadly it probably doesn’t! Luckily I like a range of food, and fermented food is something I do enjoy. I also enjoy experimenting in the kitchen with different things, and making my own kimchi is something I have been doing for a little while now.

Kimchi is a Korean speciality; it’s fermented/ pickled vegetables, often Chinese / napa cabbage and Korean radish, but can be many others too. It’s often spicy, and flavoured with fish sauce, but many regional varieties exist. In the days before refrigeration was available storing food was tricky. And in the winter people relied on many different ways of preserving the harvests of summer and autumn to see them through the winter. Drying, salting, fermenting, canning, pickling, jams and jellies – all necessary methods of ensuring that you could feed your family throughout the year. Sauerkraut maybe familiar to many in the UK and Europe, and kimchi is essentially a variation of that.

As kimchi has become more popular in the west it has undergone many iterations and variations to accommodate the western palate as well as the availability of vegetables here. Because it takes time to prepare it can be expensive to buy. It is so easy to make that if you like eating it then I really would recommend having a go at making it yourself.

Anyway – back to my kimchi! When I first started making kimchi in 2020 I used a recipe by Felicity Cloake in the Guardian. I like this recipe partly because it is based on manageable amounts. There are some great recipes and articles/blogs about kimchi and many are very authentic. The problem is that the really authentic ones use a lot of cabbage! I don’t really have the space or inclination to make such huge quantities.

The first couple of times I followed the recipe above pretty much exactly. But then I started tweaking it a bit, either out of necessity – not having quite the right ingredients – or just to see what happened. My variation now is still based on the recipe, but is slightly different. The next time it might be different again.

Why eat kimchi? Why eat any fermented food? Because it is chock full of many ‘good’ bacteria that help your gut become the best it can be, improving your immune system, reducing chronic inflammation, reducing your chances of cancer, probably improving your mood, and maybe even helping you lose weight (if that’s what you want). Professor Tim Spector, author of The Diet Myth, is a big fan of fermented foods, explaining here why some of the things we have been told in the past about healthy eating are actually not true. (I’m a big fan of a Tim Spector – look up the Zoe podcast and have a listen.)

Key ingredients

When I make it I grate the radish, the carrot and – a beetroot. I smash up the garlic and ginger in a mortar with a pestle with a pinch of salt. I didn’t add any fish sauce or salted shrimp this time so it is vegetarian. I do sometimes add them though, it depends what I feel like. I have made this with ordinary English radishes sliced up, but I do actually prefer the daikon/mooli. The one thing I think you really should try and get is the Korean red pepper flakes as they definitely do have a distinct flavour. I don’t always add as much as the recipe says though.

The red pepper mix – smashed ginger and garlic with red pepper flakes (gochugaru) and mixed to a paste with water.
Brined cabbage, grated veg and pepper mix ready to get saucy.
All mixed together – I would strongly advise wearing gloves for this bit!

How long it takes to ferment depends on the ambient temperature. In the winter (in my freezing cold house 😉) it can take a week. At the moment it’s a lot warmer so after just 2 days it is already audibly and visibly bubbling away, and the smell is quite strong. I think I’ll probably leave it another 24 hours at least to do its thing a bit more, before decanting into smaller jars and putting it in the fridge. Even in the fridge it will continue to ferment, just much more slowly.

The plastic bag is filled with water and sits on top of the kimchi to exclude air but allow the bubbles to escape.
2 days later bubbling away. The beetroot really makes it a beautiful colour.
Close up of the fermentation process!

People sometimes ask me what I eat it with. The answer is really whatever you want. In Korea is is eaten as a side dish, or added to fried rice, egg dishes etc. If you do use it in cooked food take care to add it right at the end of cooking because you don’t want to destroy all the good stuff by too much heat.

If you’re not a fan of spicy then try making sauerkraut- I have to admit the only time I tried this several years ago it was a bit of a disaster. I really should try again. I have made water kefir which is a bit like kombucha. That was really easy, and very tasty, but I ended with litres of the stuff, and couldn’t drink it fast enough so I haven’t done that for a while. I’d be really interested in your experiences of fermenting or pickling in salt/brine, please do comment below.

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