Baechu* Whole Cabbage Kimchi Bursting with Aristocratic Bossam** Flavor
Reconnecting With My Kimchi Korean Roots
When considering East Asian cuisine, there are many similarities and cross-over dishes between cultures, such as dumplings, but kimchi, spicy fermented napa cabbage, is distinctively Korean. There are over 100 varieties of kimchi with ingredients, seasonings, and fermenting techniques varying by region, province, and family. Kimchi tends to get spicier the more south you travel, and closer you get to the coast, the more oysters, squid, beltfish, and other sea creatures are added in kimchi.
There exists a kimchi for every season: clear mul kimchi quenches parched summer throats while spicy baechu kimchi warms winter bellies. The pervasive saying that, "A meal without kimchi is a sad meal" shows how elemental kimchi is to Koreans. Like Westerners who suffer from cabin fever when cooped up, Koreans purportedly suffer from kimchi fever when deprived of their kimchi. Worse yet, some marriages are said to fall apart if a wife's cooking and kimchi cannot match that of her mother-in-law!
Last fall, I visited South Korea for the first time with the intention of visiting my relatives and hope that I would glean some family recipes from my aunt and cousin. Since my grandmother died before passing on her recipes to my mother but not my mother’s sister-in-law, I thought, by virtue of being a member of the Lee family, I was entitled to share the family jewels. But upon arriving to my aunt and uncle’s home, I discovered myself shooed out of the kitchen and prevented from helping with the preparation of meals. By the time I woke up, the food was often already laid upon the table, and if I prodded my aunt and cousin enough, they begrudgingly discussed the main ingredients but not the methods. I understand that part of their treatment toward me was motivated by their perception of me as a guest. In Korean traditional culture, my helping is considered an insult because it insinuates that the hostess cannot handle the work alone. But my aunt and cousin also believe that an American born Korean will never be as familiar with or capable of mastering the art of Korean cuisine. They have not recently visited Los Angeles to realize that it is home to the largest Korean population outside of Korea.
Hence, when asking for my grandmother’s kimchi recipe, I was repeatedly denied a reply, mostly because my aunt and cousin did not believe that I could know anything about Korean food, let alone pull off making kimchi. My aunt was astounded that I was even familiar with doenjang jiggae, a fermented soy bean stew with tofu and scraps of fish, meat, and vegetable—something I ate often as a child.
My journey was drawing to a close and my disappointment mounting when my cousin, sensing my distress, tried to comfort me with an explanation for her refusal to share my grandmother’s kimchi recipe. First, my aunt’s kimchi recipe was not exactly the same as my grandmother’s because each generation tweaks the recipe a bit to improve upon it. Second, with the advent of technology, Koreans drastically reduced the amount of salt in kimchi because they had refrigerators now to prevent spoiling. Third, kimchi recipes change according to taste and what ingredients are on hand. If seafood is not available, it won’t be included in the recipe. And fourth, there really is no point in her explaining since kimchi making is a complex, all-day procedure, which she cannot fathom me following!
Of course, she could have just explained her recipe in the same breath she wasted on why she refused to tell me, but my heart lightened in a moment of epiphany: my grandmother’s kimchi recipe is interesting as a historic artifact but is just that—a relic of old times. I am luckier than my cousin because I, as an American, am free to be even more innovative with my kimchi recipe and fermentation techniques than her. With no preconceived notions of what is proper or not, I can experiment without fear. And best yet, I can start the tradition of passing down my perfect kimchi recipe for the next generation to completely revamp. Perhaps they will decide to forgo the fresh shucked oysters?
Bossam-Style Baechu Kimchi
After researching several kimchi recipes and the ingredients for each, I developed a hybrid kimchi recipe. My Bossam-Style Baechu Kimchi recipe combines the best aspects of bossam kimchi, an elite kimchi from Gaeseong, what is now considered a North Korean province, and baechu kimchi, a classic whole cabbage favorite which appears at every meal. Bossam kimchi is renown for its aristocratic heritage: the expensive, rare ingredients combined with its labor-intensive preparation made it available only to the wealthy few. Baechu kimchi is popular for practical reasons: made from whole cabbage, it lasts the longest and is easy to prepare. Bossam-Style Baechu Kimchi extracts the ingredients and seasonings of bossam kimchi and combines them with the relatively easy preparation techniques and longevity of baechu kimchi.
What makes this Bossam-Style Baechu Kimchi truly unique is the addition of rare, raw, white aloe bee honey in lieu of the oft-called for over-processed sugar. Honey is an unconventional way of enhancing the kimchi fermentation process and reducing the risk of bad bacteria blooms without added salt. As an anti-bacterial agent and one of the only natural fermentable sugars, honey kills off the bad bacteria in the kimchi while encouraging fermentation and the flourishing of lactobacilli.
Two days pass when I detect a heady scent reminiscent of runny French cheeses. Take one bite into bossam-style baechu kimchi and your dormant taste buds will awaken and nasal passages clear. Crunchy like a half-sour pickle and refreshing as wine spritzer, bossam-style baechu kimchi complements any meal with its perfect balance of acidity and complex combination of flavors. Lightly roasted walnuts and pine nuts gently meld with the subtle sweetness of crisp Asian pear and fruity Fuji apple. Bits of brined shrimp, fresh shucked oysters and scallops fill the crevices of each cabbage leaf, leaving the taste of the ocean on the tip of your tongue. Like Willy Wonka’s Amazing Fabulous Sensational Three-Course Gum, Bossam-Style Baechu Kimchi will reverberate through your mouth and leave no part of your palette unexplored.
* Baechu kimchi is also called Baechue Tong Kimchi, Baechu Tong Kimchi, Tongbaechu Kimchi, Bechu Kimchi, and Bechu Tong Kimchi.
** Bossam is also spelled Bosam, Possam, and Posam.
Bossam-Style Baechu Kimchi Recipe
~ Makes one gallon or 4-quart jar and one 1/2 gallon 2-quart jar
Salted whole napa cabbage1. Rinse the cabbage well once and drain.
It is very important not to over-salt the napa cabbage and to be attentive to its changing chemistry during the salting process, in which it will lose over 90 percent of its water. Make sure you have enough sterilized, glass, screw-top jars. You can choose between one gallon jar and one half-gallon jar or three half-gallon jars.
7-8 lbs/2 heads Napa cabbage, cut into quarters or 2-inch wedges, depending on size of cabbage
1 3/4 cup coarse sea salt or kosher salt
2. Trim off any residual root of cabbage, leaving only enough to hold the cabbage together.
3. Slice the cabbage into length-wise quarters.
4. Use water sparingly to rinse the cabbage. Reserve the collected cabbage water.
5. Sprinkle salt between each leaf of the quartered cabbage, and place each in a row in a large, non-reactive bowl or pot and layer them.
6. Pour the reserved cabbage water toward the side of the container so as to not wash off the salt from the cabbage. The salted cabbage should not be entirely submerged in cabbage water.
7. Pour the remaining salt on top of the quartered cabbages.
8. Let the cabbage salt for three hours, shifting the cabbage pieces every hour. After the second hour passes, make sure you tend to it every fifteen minutes and test to see whether it has a crunch to your liking.
9. Rinse the salted cabbage pieces very thoroughly.
10. Wring the liquid from each cabbage piece and set aside. Reserve the juice in a separate bowl, you may require this later.Spicy Kimchi Paste1. Boil 1 ½ cups of water in a small non-reactive pot, reduce to a simmer, and gently sift 3 tbs of sweet brown rice flour into the water, stirring frequently. Let cool.
I used my very powerful Vita-Mix Blender to finely grind my own organic sweet brown rice flour, but you can use regular sweet rice flour. For oysters, I used Hama Hama, which are famous for their briny flavor, firm meat, mild finish and freshness even during summer months, but if you can get a hold of them, use Olympia oysters because they have a unique smoky flavor and copper finish.
Kimchi Paste Base
3 tbs sweet brown rice flour
3/4 bulb garlic, cloves separated and peeled
2 tsp ginger juice, fresh squeezed
1/4 cup Korean brined baby shrimp
1 cup Korean hot pepper powder
½ cup oysters, raw, freshly shucked
¼ cup scallops, raw
1 blood orange, juice + zest
1 shitake mushroom, fresh or rehydrated if previously dehydrated
1/3 cup honey
½ sweet white onion
Kimchi Paste Bits
1/3 cup walnuts, finely chopped
1 lb Korean radish or daikon, peeled and sliced into 2 x 1 x ¼ inch blocks
1 large Asian pear, peeled and sliced into 2 x 1 x ¼ inch blocks
1 Fuji apple, peeled and sliced into 2 x 1 x ¼ inch blocks
2 tbs pine nuts, brown tips removed
2 jujubes, pitted and thinly slivered
3 tbs goji berries
2. Pour the cooled sweet rice paste and the rest of the ingredients listed under Kimchi Paste Base into a blender and blend on high.
3. Mix the Kimchi Paste Base together with the ingredients listed under Kimchi Paste Bits.Preparing the Kimchi1. Smear the kimchi paste between each of the cabbage leaves, depositing some of the radish, apple, and pear in the outer-most layer of the cabbages as well as the inner.
Make sure you use a plastic drop cloth or newspapers when stuffing the kimchi because the red peppers stain surfaces and clothing easily. Also make sure you wear rubber or powder-free latex gloves in order to prevent chili pepper burns.
2. Tightly compress the leaves and then start depositing each prepared cabbage quarter into a sterilized glass jar with screw-top lid.
3. Press down on the prepared bundles as you fill each jar to remove any air bubbles.
4. Make sure you leave at least two inches of space on top of each jar.
5. Sparingly pour the reserved cabbage juice from the wrung cabbages into each jar.
6. Pile any remaining kimchi paste and bits into each jar.
7. Double saran wrap over the mouth of the kimchi jars and stretch a rubber band over the necks. Screw the cap on tightly.
8. Bag the kimchi in a plastic bag and make sure the whole jar is covered the bag to prevent odors and the potential release of gases.
9. Set aside in a cool dark place overnight. In the morning, ladle out some of the juice if necessary.
10. Let mature in a cool, dark place for 2-3 days before placing the kimchi in the refrigerator to slow the fermentation process. The kimchi will last up to 3 weeks after which it will gradually increase in sourness.
11. To serve, transfer one whole piece onto the cutting board and slice crosswise into 2 inch sections.