Anyone else out there a huge fan of degraded fermented cabbage flavored with dried chili and semi-rotten seafood, replete with the lingering aroma of old garlic and repressed farts? Yeah, thought so. I love kimchi too, but man, do I have to work on my descriptions.
But wait, seafood? There's seafood in kimchi? Yep. Kimchi—a term which refers to a broad category of various pickled, fermented vegetables served as as side dish or condiment to the main meal—is more often than not flavored with some kind of fermented seafood product like brined shrimp or fish sauce.
That's bad news for vegetarians. The role of those fermented seafood products is to add a good amount of glutamic acid to the mix. That's the chemical which gives our mouths the sensation of savoriness or umami and part of what makes kimchi taste so deep and complex. Here's the good news: There are other common ingredients that can provide concentrated bursts of glutamic acid just as well, and vegetarian/vegan kimchi is incredibly simple to make at home.
Though there are countless variety of kimchi, the most common is made with fermented napa cabbage flavored with chilis, scallions, and plenty of garlic. That's the version I'm after here. First step is to salt the cabbage leaves, which accomplishes two goals. Firstly, salt is a natural preservative. It restricts the activity of bacteria in your kimchi, allowing other types of bacteria (named lactobacillus kimchii) to complete their job of creating acid to give kimchi its characteristic sour flavor and funk before the whole thing has a chance to rot.
Secondly, through the power of osmosis, salt will draw liquid out of the cabbage cells. This causes the leaves to wilt and tenderize, as well as providing a briny flavor-base for which to pack your kimchi.
I massage whole cabbage leaves with a bit of salt and let them rest for about half a day while they slowly release their liquid (you can rush it if you want!).
Garlic—and lots of it—is a given, as are scallions. I like to add a touch of ginger to my kimchi. With a standard kimchi flavor base, you get a hint of seafood funk from the shrimp. In this vegetarian version, I add a few slices of daikon radish to the mix, a vegetable known for becoming quite pungent when fermented. Salting it along with the cabbage is the way to go. A hint of sugar helps to balance out the salt and spice.
What's the best substitute for the umami-burst of the dried shrimp? I tried a number of things, including soy sauce, marmite, and pure MSG powder, but the best option was red miso paste, a similarly glutamate-rich condiment that's readily available.
As for the kochukaru—Korean dried chili powder, this is perhaps the only ingredient that can be a little tough to track down, but it's absolutely essential. Korean chilis are a lot more about flavor than heat. You can pack a whole load of chili powder into your kimchi before you end up with a significant amount of heat. I haven't found any other pepper with a similar flavor profile and heat/aroma ratio.
If you've got a Korean or large Asian grocer near you, you may be in luck. Otherwise, hey! The internet if your friend. (The stuff sold on Amazon shows whole chilis in the bag, but it's the wrong picture—that's powder).
The rest of the process is pretty darn simple. All you've got to do is process your aromatics together into a paste. You can do this the old fashioned way with a mortar and pestle, but a food processor will do just fine. I like to leave a few larger slices of scallion out so that I can add them whole to the mix for a bit of color later on.
After coating your wilted cabbage and radish in the spice blend, all you've got to do is pack it tightly into jars, adding enough brine to make sure that everything is submerged, then let time do its work.
Some folks (like the ever-helpful David Lebovitz) recommend letting the jar sit at room temperature for a couple of days to ferment. It's a good way to get your kimchi on the table faster, but I prefer the ease of just shoving the thing in the fridge and tracking its progression as the days go by. Within about a week or so, it's ready to eat and it comes to its funky, sour, garlicky prime at around the 3 to 4-week mark.