In a year when we are asked to wait, to slow, to postpone, two friends in Germany find solace in kimchi making
November brought us another lockdown. A light version this time although still limiting the number of people that can gather and shutting down restaurant dining and cultural venues. This winter will be another test of resourcefulness, keeping good health and good humor.
How, you wonder, after an already testing year? We have a secret weapon – kimchi. It is part of our plan to fight this winter’s germs and blues!
Kimchi, the delicacy that is considered Korea’s national food, is a love-hate type of relationship to Western people. Like cilantro or strong cheese. You either love it or hate it. Our family and friends fall squarely within the two camps. Those of us who love it are undeterred by the hater camp. Why should we!? Kimchi has everything to go for it, a reason why it’s steadily gaining devotees outside of its native lands.
Let’s start with the taste – sharp, spicy and pungent. It’s out there. You can’t miss it. It demands your taste buds’ attention. Admittedly, kimchi’s potency can be a challenge to a Westerner’s generally bland palate, all the chili, garlic, ginger, onions. It’s not for the faint of heart. Yet, it kind of goes with everything. In a pinch, kimchi dresses up a simple soup, a plate of vegetables and legumes, it serves as the universal winter salad and makes a flavor-packed-yet-light snack.
Health Benefits of Kimchi
Kimchi is ultra healthy. The health benefits of kimchi come from its raw ingredients and the lactic-acid bacteria involved in fermentation. Research has shown kimchi’s antioxidative, anticancer, anti-obesity, antiageing and immune-stimulatory effects. It’s loaded with fibers and vitamins due to the presence of cabbage, carrot, radish and other vegetables.
As a result of the lactic-acid fermentation process used to preserve kimchi, it contains probiotic microorganisms that are beneficial for a healthy gut. We increasingly hear how gut health may affect brain health.
Gut microbes also play an important role in the immune system and inflammation. Inflammation is shown to be associated with brain disorders, including depression and dementia. Fermented foods, including kimchi and its central European cousin sauerkraut, are beneficial for the gut-brain axis and may potentially alter brain activity. Simply put, kimchi might make you happier and, at any rate, will help enhance your digestive function. Without doubt, we need any help to stay positive this winter!
A Low Carbon Footprint
Kimchi should score high with vegetarians and those concerned about carbon footprint. The humble kimchi vegetables and other ingredients, such as garlic and onions, can all be locally sourced in most of the northern hemisphere throughout the winter months. This makes kimchi a serious competitor in the vitamin C race to fruits, such as lemons and oranges, which must be imported to many places over long distances.
A recent check showed our local supermarket in Germany offering oranges from South Africa and kiwis from New Zealand. The nappa cabbage (like others in the cabbage family), on the other hand, is grown locally in many northern countries. Local sourcing makes kimchi highly economical as well. You start with inexpensive vegetables and the magic of fermentation yields a product that is greater than the sum of its parts and superior on the health benefits scale.
If you skip the fish sauce, the only animal-derived ingredient of kimchi, the product is entirely vegan. This year has many of us wondering about our relationship with and impact on nature. We try to be more frugal and considerate, less wasteful of nature’s resources. Kimchi, with its short farm to fork chain, looks exceedingly attractive, fair and sustainable.
A Perfect Time for Kimchi Making
After all this kimchi-eating exhortation, it’s time to make a confession: This fall is the first time we made kimchi from scratch in our kitchen. Why only now? Same reason, suppose, as for the proliferation of sourdough bread baking and other kitchen experiments brought by the Covid lockdowns. We were two neighbors wanting to learn something new during a time when many of the usual outlets for human time and energy (cafes, restaurants, social events) are unavailable.
We craved something that was creative, resourceful and healthful and steeped in tradition. And we wanted to prepare it together, to share and to provide. Kimchi invites collaboration. It calls for being made in large quantities.
All the chopping, salting, mixing, jar-filling and week-long waiting for the fermentation require effort and patience, easier borne when shared. We spent the two hours needed for the vegetables to sit in a salt brine taking our dogs for a walk in the woods, absorbing the last of the fall colors.
The rest of the time in the kitchen (about 3.5 hours in total) were occupied tending to the vegetables, chatting, marveling at the amount of garlic and ginger consumed, the satisfying process of massaging the veggies with the spicy paste, and all the time lamenting at the cabbage’s propensity to shrink (four large nappa cabbages yielding about fourteen half-liter jars of precious kimchi).
The kimchi largesse means it is to be shared with others – neighbors, friends and family, other kimchi lovers. This is why kimchi is a cooperative and communal activity in Korea, contributing to social cohesion. At the end of our afternoon, we ended up with something beautiful to share – the reddish color of our neatly stacked jars of kimchi brought a jolt of esthetic joy and a sense of accomplishment.
We will have to wait some three weeks for the fermentation cycle to complete before we enjoy the fruits of our labor. Kimchi truly is life in the slow lane – nothing about it is quick and immediate. It defies the “I want it now”, instant gratification culture we have become. It also seems reflective of this year, when we are asked to wait, to slow, to postpone. But the reward for our patience is a gift that keeps on giving – we get to feast on our kimchi for weeks!
The only disappointment? We made way too little. Oh well, there surely will be a second batch come January.
Barbora Moring is an enthusiastic kitchen experimenter. A former lawyer, she is exploring a new professional path as a veterinary physiotherapist. Co-kimchi maker, Naima, is a digital marketing expert and an avid shiatsu practitioner. The two friends share passion for food, healthy lifestyle and their two sibling hounds.