Imagine life without refrigeration. What a sanitary nightmare that would be! Most of our food today has been sterilized, hermetically sealed, blast frozen, and transported thousands of miles in a perfect state of suspended animation. It's easy to forget that this lifestyle was impossible for most of human history.
While the last century has seen dramatic leaps and bounds in the the war against microorganisms – sterilization, pasteurization, antibacterial cleansers – all of man’s history leading up to it has been a running experiment in cultivating the little bugs we can’t live without. The lost art of lacto-fermentation is one of the oldest methods of food preservation. The process depends on lactobacilli, ubiquitous bugs that produce lactic acid and prevent the growth of bacteria that cause spoilage.
Today’s culinary landscape would be incomplete without fermented foods. Bread, butter, cheese, yogurt, wine and beer, sausage, sauerkraut, salsa, soy sauce, ketchup and all things pickled are just a few of the familiar foods originally prepared by fermentation. Some still are, but many are now counterfeit taste-alikes that lack the beneficial enzymes and live cultures that made the originals so nutritious. Besides flavor, fermentation adds valuable enzymes and lactic acid to foods. Our bodies naturally produce these for digestion; getting them from food lightens the burden and helps us absorb more nutrients. Cultivating the good bugs in our internal ecosystem also improves immunity and has been associated with increased energy and long life.
All traditional societies consumed raw and cultured foods with their cooked meals. These traditions live on in the form of pickles on burgers, sauerkraut on sausage, cheese and crackers. In keeping with tradition, I try to have something fermented with every meal.
My most recent experiment with fermentation was Korean kimchi, which was an absolute joy to make. I started with a recipe from Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee's book, Eating Korean. My one adjustment that obliterates the authenticity was to leave out the garlic. How can it be kimchi without garlic? I will use it next time, and also experiment with substituting fish sauce and salted shrimp for the sea salt, and adding other vegetables like mustard greens and radishes. There is a whole world - or at least a country - of kimchi to explore. For the first batch though, I wanted to give Stephen a less-stinky introduction to that world.
Cecilia says sea salt is best because its higher magnesium chloride content keeps the vegetables crisp. Salt is essential for pickling because it inhibits the growth of bad bacteria while the preserving bacteria obtain a critical mass. So at the Korean market, I picked the salt bag that had pictures of kimchi ingredients and no English except "salt" on the back label.
I also picked up a giant Napa cabbage, two big bunches of green onions, a pound of red pepper powder and a fresh chunk of ginger. At home, I sliced the cabbage into one-inch ribbons and soaked them in salt water all day using a quarter-cup of salt and enough water to cover the cabbage.
At night, I drained the cabbage and mixed in four sliced green onions, a tablespoon of shredded ginger, and a tablespoon of red pepper powder. Very simple. The original recipe said to save the salted soak-water, but since I wasn't using organic cabbage and hoped that any chemical residues might have dissolved away into that water, I discarded it.
I packed the fresh kimchi into a quart jar and poured a half-cup of water into which I'd dissolved a tablespoon of sea salt over the top of it. Then I put it in the pantry and waited. And waited.
Tuesday night it was ready! It actually could have fermented a little longer or at a warmer temperature - it wasn't too tangy at all. Plenty salty and spicy though! I'm very excited about trying many more varieties. Even ancient traditions like lacto-fermented kimchi can have a place in our modern kitchens; it's not too late to bring this one back to life!