When we closed Partisan as a response to the pandemic and self isolated at the farm, I decided to begin to cook again, in a way I had not been doing recently. Cooking, with plenty of time to read, experiment, observe, taste, nourish. I realised how much I missed it, and how much of myself had been lost in the treadmill we were in. Grateful for time, and for space and for having good ingredients to experiment with, and the commitment to use everything I had available in a connected, creative and documented way.
Kimchi was on my list, mostly because of left over vegetables I had in the fridge and because I had become fixated on a certain look and texture and a particular colour I wanted to achieve after seeing someone's post on instagram. I am not a recipe maker, I like to learn a new technique or follow an idea and then I like to free-style, using things I already have.
Food is intended to be shared with others, and this pandemic has not only meant that we had to close the restaurant but also that we cannot physically meet, cook and eat with our families and friends. In times of Corona isolation, reveries of shared meals become the thing we hark back to the most, and what we look forward to above all when this is all over. I find myself ringing people more often to talk, rather than text. Whilst writing this piece I rang my friends Murat and Hana in Leeds. I had been reminded of the first time we went to dinner to their house, exactly six years before. Both amazing cooks, their heritage comes together effervescently in one of the most creative domestic kitchens I know. Murat is from Istanbul, my mecca, and Hana from Seoul. Their elaborate dinners are a feast for the senses, and Murat cooks all the time, an accomplished Vegan chef, famous for converting Hugo to tofu, which he makes himself too. Hana went from studying Food Biochemistry at University, to styling for films in the emerging Korean Film industry, to styling the President and then taking a year out to study in the UK, where she met Murat, a fashion photographer (and former restaurateur) and she has been here ever since. Her sushi is to die for and his Buchimgae, little Korean pancakes that he makes with sourdough, epic. They used to employ a lady in Hanna's salon from North Korea who's mother used to make them fantastic kimchi, but nowadays they make it at home. Traditionally in Korea, Kimchi is made in the autumn, after the cabbage harvest, and just before their harsh winter. Often, when crops fail or there are storms, the price of cabbage goes up and it becomes very expensive. That is when Kim-Chi becomes Geum-Chi (Geum means gold). When you pop in to visit someone at home in Korea, it is not a cup of tea you are offered, it is Kimchi and there are quick versions that people put together, like " oi kimchi", a water cucumber kimchi made by salting strips of cucumber, rinsing and squeezing it, and adding chilli, garlic, ginger, sugar, Chinese chives and a drizzle of sesame oil and served alongside steamed rice.
A picture of some of the dishes at Murat and Hana's house a few years ago.
I first came across Kimchi when I lived in a college town in the US around thirty years ago, and made friends with people from all over the world. We used to cook a lot and invite each other for lunch and dinner and we tended to make dishes from our respective countries. My friend Namho Kim, a sweet natured boy from Seoul was a fine cook and so was his room-mate Toshi, from Japan. Kimchi was a bit too much for me then. As a young Argentinian, I had come from a culture of very little spice, so my heat threshold was pretty low and Namho's kimchi was incredibly spicy, almost red with so much chilli powder. He used to cry with laughter at my tears of pain whilst dealing with the heat of his dishes.
Later, in York, I had a Korean friend with whom I set up a market in Heslington in around 2004. Think WI market but cosmopolitan, we were a group of women from different countries and backgrounds and we used to sell cakes and ready meals. Unja made Kimchi every week and sold out first thing, people could not have enough, but still it was a bit too much for me. The pieces of cabbage were too big and it was too spicy and too garlicky.
In my years of cooking as a Tenzo on Zen Buddhist retreats I was approached to cook for some special retreats down in Devon led by a Korean Monk called Jisu Sunim. Food was a very important part of his talks every day. The ceremony of cooking and eating and paying attention to the balance, texture, flavour, colour and provenance of food was what had attracted me at first to the practice and Jisu celebrated my style, but he quickly banned cake and he kept telling me that the meals that I was cooking needed to be lighter in order to help the retreatants with their practice. Light meals to help clear the mind. I was eager to learn and to please so I started researching Korean food and learnt a lot along the way. Koreans are considered to have one of the best diets in the world, and their eating habits are based around gut health, digestion, longevity and of course, taste.
We make Kimchi at Partisan to go alongside our Bibimbap. This is mentioned in lots of Korean traveling websites. For this we make a quick but more traditional recipe in which we use Chinese Cabbage ,Mooli and Carrots , but sometimes we add beetroot for a different colour. We make seasonal kimchi, kraut or ferments for our evening menu with organic vegetables we get from Food Circle, and there is a big box left in the fridge of a very pungent wild garlic ferment, which is full of umami.
For this Batch of Kimchi I was interested in creating a uniform colour pink and I had quite a lot of radishes, a head of radicchio that was too sad for salad and half a red cabbage.
People often struggle with the word fermented. Fermentation is the chemical breakdown of a natural substance by micro organisms like bacteria or yeast, which feed on the natural sugars to create compounds like lactic acid which help preserve food. The salt draws the liquid out from the vegetables, but also prevents the undesired bacteria to thrive. People have been fermenting for thousands of years, all over the world. I am reminded of this ancient wisdom whenever I use a beautiful Miso paste or my ultimate ingredient, Tamari: a Japanese sauce like soy sauce made by fermenting and distilling soya beans. They add, without failure, so much depth to dishes and help achieve umami with their magic. I could write poems about Tamari, less salty than soy sauce and without all the added sugar of the most commercial ones, it is also gluten free and it is a catalyst for aiding vegetables release their own flavours in a much more efficient way than salt.
When it comes to fermentation I am no expert, I have tried to look at the science behind it (we are supposed to write a risk assessment for the council) but I do think that Kimchi is an art form, an archaic ritual manifesting the interconnection between the needs and musts of food: nourishment, vitality, preservation, seasonality, health, biology, taste, and survival. There is obviously a scientific element (as there always is in cooking) but the instinctual cook needs to come out to play here as well. There are so many things that we don't know that we know.
Vegetables: Approx 20 radishes. 1/2 a red cabbage. 1 Head of Radicchio . You could use carrots, white cabbage, beets, turnips, etc. Slice thinly and mix together in a generous bowl. Add 4 tablespoons of sea salt and mix thoroughly. Leave for 5 minutes for the vegetables to start releasing their own juices and then massage and squeeze, repeatedly , for about 5 minutes. I love this part, take your time. Add one litre of cold water, mix it well to make sure all the vegetable bits are under liquid, cover and leave overnight.
As you get ready to drain the vegetables (don’t throw away the brine) Make a spice mix, a good amount of fresh ginger, 3 cloves of garlic, 2 shallots, 1 chilli, seeds discarded. I put everything in my mini blender, but on pulse, so you still have texture. I then added 1 heaped tablespoon of coriander seeds, sacrilege, maybe, but why not. The use of aromatics pays off later on.
Drain the vegetables but do not throw away the brine, as you might need it later. This is a good stage to taste, if you find it too salty do rinse them quickly. However if you cannot taste the salt, add a bit more. I bought a kimchi vessel a few years ago, but I prefer a glass jar in this case, as I am curious to see the colour developing. I am using a big sterilised jar, but a 1 litre jar would do. Put a layer of sliced vegetables and press them down then layer the spice mix. Continue to layer and press. As you put pressure, the brine rises up. Continue to do so until you have used both the vegetables and the spice mix. If the whole thing is not under liquid, add some from the left over brine. Put some weighs to push it all down further making sure there is no trapped air. I put mine in the oven at 180c for 10 minutes beforehand to sterilise, but make sure to cool them down before they come into contact with the mix. Close the lid tightly and leave to ferment for 5-6 days in a warm dark place.
I checked every day to assess the process and because I was curious about the colour.
Once I felt that the fermentation had occurred, I opened the jar and transferred it all to a smaller airtight container to keep in the fridge, liquid and all. The colour and texture was exactly as I had anticipated, pink like Campari granita, like the blossom on the cherry trees at the moment. Spring Kimchi.
You can keep kimchi for up to a year if the balance is right. Don't be discouraged by the smell. The strong smell is unavoidable. Modern Korean houses have a fridge solely designated for Kimchi, and old apartments and old houses each had a purpose built kimchi pot outside. It does smell strongly, but it is worth it, it tastes delicious!
(Last night I made Bibimbap. I had some bits of onglet steak that I quickly marinated with tamari, miso, chilli, tiny pinch of muscovado sugar and toasted sesame oil. I fried the kimchi with the vegetables and the steak (medium rare) to get all those beautiful punchy flavours sipping. Served on Steamed Jasmine RIce and topped with a fried egg and a sprinkle of gomasio. The coriander seeds kept bouncing as an added note in my mouth and the whole thing was a real treat) I promise I will share the proper recipe soon. Stay safe, Stay nourished, and see you soon.