Why It Works
- Using miso paste in place of brined shrimp or fish sauce lends umami to the kimchi.
- Adding daikon to the ferment increases its pungency.
- Salting the cabbage, daikon, and scallion greens draws out liquid, which then acts as a brine for lactic fermentation.
Kimchi—a term which refers to a broad category of various pickled, fermented vegetables served as a 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 chiles, scallions, and plenty of garlic. That's the version I'm after here. The 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.
Gochugaru, or Korean chile powder, can be a little tough to track down, but it's absolutely essential. Korean chiles are a lot more about flavor than heat. You can pack a whole load of chile 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 is your friend.
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 or blender will work 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 three to four-week mark.
1 large head Napa cabbage, cored and separated into individual leaves, about 1 pound total
1 small daikon radish (about 4 ounces)
8 scallions, greens roughly chopped, whites reserved separately
8 cloves garlic
One 2-inch knob ginger, peeled
1/2 cup Korean chile powder (gochugaru)
2 tablespoons white or red miso paste
1 tablespoon sugar
Place cabbage leaves, daikon, and scallion greens in a large bowl and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons kosher salt. Toss to combine, cover, then let sit at room temperature until cabbage is wilted, at least 1 hour and up to 12. It should release about 1/4 to 1/2 cup liquid.
Meanwhile, combine scallion whites, garlic, ginger, chile powder, miso paste, and sugar in the bowl of a food processor or blender. Process until a rough paste is formed, about 30 seconds total, scraping down sides as necessary.
Once cabbage is wilted, add chile mixture and turn to coat. Add 1 cup water to mixture. Taste liquid and add more salt as necessary (it should have the saltiness of sea water). Pack kimchi into mason jars, pressing down firmly to pack tightly and using a chopstick to release any air bubbles trapped in the bottom of the jar. Cover the kimchi with its liquid.
Seal the jars tightly and allow them to sit at cool room temperature for 24 hours, then transfer to the refrigerator. Allow to ferment at least 1 week before eating (see note). Alternatively, place directly in fridge after parking and taste daily starting after the first week until it's as sour as you like it. For a milder flavor, consume within 1 month.
This kimchi will get more and more sour as it ages. It can be eaten immediately, but is optimal at around three weeks. For a more traditional kimchi, replace the miso paste with 1/4 cup fish sauce or 2 tablespoons jarred brined tiny shrimp. It's normal for the kimchi to produce lots of gas as it's fermenting. Your jar's lids may pop open when you twist it off and bubbles may appear in the liquid. Do not be alarmed.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 0g||0%|
|Saturated Fat 0g||0%|
|Total Carbohydrate 3g||1%|
|Dietary Fiber 0g||1%|
|Total Sugars 1g|
|Vitamin C 7mg||35%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|