If you haven’t tried to make a fermented food like vegetarian kimchi from scratch yet, making one may blow your mind.
It was certainly necessary for me to suspend my disbelief the first time.
While some of you are likely fermentation experts, others might feel it's scary to keep food that you intend to eat out on the counter for days on end, but this is exactly how kimchi is made.
Mom would have likely warned us never to do that. But recently this view is changing, and even moms are understanding that fermented foods like kimchi have value as part of a healthy diet. Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers would have preserved food in a similar fashion all the time.
So for those of us of the newest generation, here is how it works. And why it works.
To make kimchi, the first thing you do is cover the vegetables in salt, which kills off all harmful bacteria. The salt is then rinsed off in cold water, and the vegetables are mixed with spices and seasoning. This mixture is packed into a container and covered tightly. It is then left to sit out at room temperature.
As it sits, the bacteria that survived the salt (Lactobacillus bacteria) converts sugars into lactic acid. This is what preserves the kimchi and makes it tasty and tangy.
In fact, according to a recent study, there is a tonne of bacterial activity at work as the kimchi ferments (as many as 900 strains of healthy bacteria) and at least four probiotics that promote healthy digestion.
This is all I will say here about how kimchi is so good for you. If you want more information about it, please read my other post, “Why the 2,000-Year Kimchi Tradition is Here to Stay.” In this post there is a section, 4 Surprising Facts About Microorganisms in the Human Body, that you won’t want to miss.
Oh, and Time Magazine lists kimchi among the 100 Most Healing Foods, and one of 10 Foods Filled with Probiotics.
Get To Know The (Very Good) Vegetables
Kimchi’s vegetable ingredients are all of the best kind: cruciferous and allium. That is, plants of the cabbage family (includes radish), and plants of the onion family.
These vegetables are known to be anti-inflammatory and cancer fighting, and much more. If you are interested in learning more about the health benefits, visit this post for cruciferous vegetables, and this one for alliums.
Specifically, the vegetables I am talking about are: napa cabbage, white radish, yellow onion, green onion, garlic, and ginger, mixed with mild red pepper flakes, and some surprise “sweet” ingredients I will talk about later.
If you are unfamiliar with napa cabbage as a vegetable, I highly recommend Food52’s article. But come right back, because this recipe is definitely the one you want to make.
The way I see it, the more you can get good vegetables and spices into your body, the better you will feel. With vegetarian kimchi, you will be armed with powerful food as medicine whenever you need it.
What Is A Gochugaru Pepper?
In the ingredient list I just gave, I listed mild red pepper flakes. These are Gochugaru peppers.
Gochugaru has been gaining in fame outside of Korea of late partly because of kimchi, but also because of Gochujang, another key ingredient in Korean cooking that has been making its way onto mainstream menus such as Noodles and Co.
Gochujang is a traditional Korean pepper paste made from glutinous (sticky) rice, fermented soybeans, soy sauce, and Gochugaru chilis.
The takeaway here is that whenever you encounter Korean food, it is likely going to involve Gochugaru peppers.
The Gochugaru pepper flakes we use for the kimchi look scary at first—they are dark red-orangey with a matte finish like brick siding, and they smell like a tantalizing fruit—but they are indeed mild.
Some may find them more like medium mild, but I promise this is nothing like cayenne pepper, or red chili pepper. This is a chili you can enjoy.
Are you getting excited to try Gochugaru peppers? You will need to purchase this ingredient if you want to make the napa cabbage kimchi recipe.
Amazon makes it easy, and so do I :). I never want an unfamiliar ingredient to be an obstacle for you. Here are some good choices if you like. (I will get a small commission if you buy through these links.) Alternately, you can visit an Asian grocery store or specialty spice retailer to find this ingredient.
Shin Kim’s Balanced Vegetarian Kimchi Recipes
The two vegetarian kimchi recipes I am sharing with you today are modified slightly from Shin Kim’s wonderful little cookbook, “Vegetarian Dishes from My Korean Home.”
The New York-based Shin studied vegetarian cooking with Korean temple nuns, and now runs a Korean cooking school, Banchan Story, where she teaches the traditional virtues of Korean cooking.
I really love Shin’s vegetarian kimchi concept, and I especially appreciate being able to make it myself. By making kimchi yourself, you know exactly what is in it. The unfamiliar becomes familiar, so you can enjoy it to your heart’s content.
The first recipe below is made from crunchy napa cabbage, with all the fun alliums, the unexpected kabocha squash, and a touch of raw sugar for sweetness.
The second is a mildly pungent daikon radish kimchi, balanced with Korean pear and apple, and a touch of sugar. Radish is right in season for spring, so it is a good time to do this. (I am encouraging you.)
Traditional Radish Kimchi
Napa cabbage kimchi is the most popular kimchi today, but a radish kimchi is the most traditional.
Radish is the original kimchi ingredient, the one that was used over 2,000 years ago when kimchi is thought to have been invented. True to that tradition, there is no chili in this radish kimchi recipe.
When I told my mom I was making kimchi she turned her nose at the chili peppers, thinking it was too spicy for her. The radish kimchi is a better option if the idea of chilis doesn’t excite you (mom!).
Although radish is notoriously stinky (and it is), I feel it is still worth it, because it is such a healthy food. Radish is also one of those early spring foods, so the timeliness of this recipe couldn’t be better.
I was also attracted by Shin’s appealing idea of fermenting the radish in a broth flavored with Asian pear. Adding a natural sweet into the ferment is a brilliant idea, and with the radishes you get pieces of translucent pickled onion along with the radish (the pear is removed before jarring).
What Goes With Radish Kimchi?
This radish kimchi is crisp without being too crisp. The pungency of the radish is nicely reduced by the ferment, yielding a fresh bite that goes wonderfully with Asian and Indian foods.
Actually, it isn’t surprising that radish goes well with Indian food. In north India it is common to be served raw white radish with meals.
I have discovered that radish kimchi works as a condiment with western foods, too, just like a pickle. I am thinking meals like quinoa-lentil loaf, vegetable pot pie, wild mushroom tart … and so on would be enhanced with a pinch of radish kimchi.
I even enjoyed the fermented radish chopped up in a green salad for a tangy element. Sky's the limit for the many uses of this kimchi.
What Goes With Napa Cabbage Kimchi?
To my surprise, I’ve been experimenting, and adding a bite of kimchi to almost every meal. At the same time I am inspired to cook more Asian food.
I also enjoy kimchi as a snack, with a cracker and a bit of cheese.
Kimchi goes nicely with rice or as a spicy-savory component on toast or in a sandwich. It is amazing with eggs, and it works in a grain bowl, healing bowl, or whatever you want to call your bowl.
Your Turn To Make Vegetarian Kimchi
Are you ready to get chopping? I was fortunate to have made my kimchi on the first day of spring, and it felt right to be aligning with spring energy that encourages the body to detox and rejuvenate. It is still early spring, so the time is still perfect for you.
I really hope you will try these recipes and reap your reward of a homemade vegetarian kimchi that will keep for months in your fridge.
I promise that under the right conditions (which are easy to create), the food becomes more flavorful and better smelling as it sits out. No mold, no fungus, and no yuck.
Rather, fermenting is pure joy!
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Two Vegetarian Kimchi Recipes: Napa Cabbage Kimchi and Radish Kimchi
Ingredients for Napa Cabbage Kimchi
- 3 pounds napa cabbage, cut into 1-inch pieces
- ½ cup natural coarse salt, see note
- 6 scallions, sliced into 1-inch pieces
for the Napa Cabbage Kimchi Paste
- ¼ cup cooked kabocha squash cubes, peeled
- 1 yellow onion, cut into chunks
- ½ cup soy sauce
- 6-8 garlic cloves
- 1- inch piece of ginger
- 1 tablespoon raw sugar
- ½ cup Korean red chili flakes (gochugaru)
Ingredients for Radish Kimchi
- 3 cups water
- 3 tablespoons natural coarse salt
- 1 tablespoon raw sugar
- 1 pound white daikon radish, cut into thin 2-inch sticks
- ½ medium onion, sliced thinly
- 1 Asian pear, sliced thinly
- 2 scallions, cut in half lengthwise, then into 2-inch pieces
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
- ½ inch piece of ginger, grated or minced
- 1 fresh chili pepper, sliced thinly
for the Napa Cabbage Kimchi
- Chop the napa cabbage, wash it, and spin it dry. Three pounds of napa cabbage will fill two large bowls, but after it is salted for some time it will reduce to one bowl. Divide the salt and sprinkle it to cover the cabbage evenly. Use both hands to combine well. Let the cabbage soak in the salt for two hours, stirring every 30 minutes. The salt draws out moisture from the vegetable and hastens the fermentation process.
- Meanwhile, prepare the kabocha squash by steaming it until soft. Remove the peel before steaming or after as you prefer. Gather the remaining ingredients for the paste. Blend all paste ingredients using a blender or mini chopper/grinder.
- After two hours, cover the salted cabbage in cold water and rinse off the salt. Drain cabbage well. Chop the scallions and add them to the cabbage.
- Mix the paste with the cabbage using your hands to fully incorporate. Pack the mixture tightly into a bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Keep in a cool place, out of direct sunlight.
- Wait a couple days (exactly two for me) until bubbles start to form on the surface. Taste the kimchi. If you like, keep it out another day or two. The longer it sits at room temperature, the stronger the kimchi will taste. When you are happy with the taste, store your vegetarian kimchi in a glass jar and keep in the fridge. Enjoy!
for the Radish Kimchi
- In a saucepan, bring water to a boil and add half the sea salt and all the sugar, and stir well to dissolve. Turn off the heat and allow brine to cool.
- Wash the radish well, and chop into ¼ inch thick sticks, 2 inches in length. Place in bowl and toss with the rest of the salt. Allow radishes to marinade in the salt for 20-30 minutes. Cover in cold water and rinse the salt off. Drain well.
- In the container you will use to prepare the radish kimchi, layer in the prepared onion, Asian pear, scallions, garlic cloves, ginger, and chili pepper. Place the radish on top and then pour the prepared sweet and salty brine over everything. The brine should fully cover the radish. If necessary, top it up with water.
- Make a cover for the kimchi with parchment paper or plastic wrap, and press it into the vegetables slightly. If necessary, use a plate or something heavy on top of the cover to keep the vegetables fully submerged in liquid.
- Put a lid on the container, and place it on the counter out of direct sunlight for 2-3 days, until bubbles start appearing on the surface, and the liquid has developed a sweet and tangy flavor.
- Once it is fermented to your liking, remove the Asian pear. Transfer the kimchi and brine to glass jars and refrigerate. It will keep for months. Enjoy!