When South Korean chef Jindu ‘JD’ Kim first planned to exchange his chef whites for a self-run kimchi business, his Australian brother-in-law warned him against taking the risk. “You will not be able to educate people here with a new product, particularly in a small town,” he told Kim, who lives in Margaret River, a Western Australian region better known for its wine than its Korean cuisine. “But I really wanted to," says the chef. "I wanted to introduce our good food to the local people, who I really believe are family.”
Kimchi is built into Korean culture, Kim tells SBS. It tells the story of a nation that experienced such poverty that meat was an unattainable luxury for his grandparents’ generation. Kimchi speaks to winters so cold, nothing could be drawn from the ground; kimchi and rice kept a nation alive. But mostly it evokes family and an edible expression of what it is to be Korean.
“For a Korean, eating kimchi is the home taste,” explains Kim, who was born and raised in Daegu, South Korea. “In Korean tradition, we never have a proper recipe. We actually call it, ‘the taste of the hands of mum’.”
Kim arrived in Western Australia in 2010, after attending university in Seoul and two years of compulsory military service. “Our ears become very big when we are in military service,” he says and smiles. With no permission to leave the base and an unchanging roster of compulsory tasks, the lure of the outside world loomed large. “When people are forced to live a restricted life, then we’re dreaming always [of] the life outside, especially for the life overseas.”
Kim followed his sister to Perth. But he wanted to be somewhere quieter. Smaller. More intimate.
“In Korean tradition, we never have a proper recipe. We actually call it, ‘the taste of the hands of mum’.”
It’s taken time on all fronts. Free samples at his Margaret River Farmers' Market stall helped teach locals that kimchi is about more than just about heat – which is “one of the misconceptions around Korean food,” Kim says. A visit from his Korean grandmother three years ago also shifted his own perspective about what it is to make kimchi.
“Because I am a chef, we totally rely on a recipe to produce a consistent result, but my grandma just did it,” says Kim, who also runs a food truck specialising in Korean cuisine.
The trained chef used to rely on strict measurements to gauge salt – kimchi’s most important ingredient – but after watching his grandmother’s free-form approach with fascination, he became more flexible. He learned from her to trust his experience and use the senses; he saw how a recipe could shift over generations, as family members added their own personal twist. Kim learned to pay attention to the thickness or thinness of the cabbage when determining how much salt to add: thicker cabbage contains more water, and thus requires more salt to extract it.
Salt makes kimchi. It is the ingredient used to, in Kim’s words, “kill the cabbage”. The ratio and type of salt (be it harsh, mineral-soft or textured) defines the end texture of the kimchi. A harsh salt will hasten the salting process of the cabbage but interrupt the composition of the end batch, resulting in a kimchi that loses its crisp bite.
One much-favoured approach involves the shoreline. In Korea, coastal dwellers have a tradition of throwing the cabbages in the sea on the way to work, and retrieving them at day’s end. “It means the fermentation is very stable, maybe because of the minerals in the seawater,” Kim says. “We can’t make it to sell like that here. We just make it for ourselves and our family.”
Using fish products in kimchi is a traditional way of ensuring a poor diet is boosted by proteins. Its umami character also introduces depth and texture to what is a very simple fermented food.
What else goes into making kimchi?
“Chilli. Garlic. Ginger,” Kim says.
But also identity. Personal history.
In Korea, coastal dwellers have a tradition of throwing the cabbages in the sea on the way to work, and retrieving them at day’s end.
“For our recipe, we use pumpkin and pear. They're not common ingredients for kimchi, but they help the fermentation because of natural sweetness. Fermentation requires lots of sugar and rather than using the actual sugar, my family enjoyed using pear maybe because they had pear near their place, or maybe because pear was very cheap,” Kim says. “If you ask me why, why, why, then we never know – because the recipe is not from us. The recipe idea comes from the Kim family – from my mother, who got it from her mother.”
The recipe is the changing story of family.
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Jindu Kim’s traditional cabbage kimchi recipe
The word ‘kimchi’ refers to the object being fermented. There is carrot kimchi. Onion kimchi. Radish kimchi. Cabbage kimchi is, however, the default version when traditionally requested at Korean restaurants. This simple home-style recipe is inspired by Kim's many experiences making the fermented staple with his family in Korea as well as his time producing kimchi in Australia.
Makes approximately 1 kilo of kimchi
- 2 kg wombok cabbage
- 120 g sea salt
- 35 g glutinous rice flour
- 140 ml water
- 1-2 red chillies (substitute with green chillies if you prefer more heat in your kimchi)
- 60 g fresh garlic
- 12 g fresh ginger
- 24 g fine sugar
- 38 g Korean brand fish sauce
- 50 g Korean brand chilli powder
- Cut wombok cabbages in half and wash well.
- Salt cabbage leaves with the sea salt – make sure to salt each leaf, layer by layer.
- Leave salted cabbage at room temperature for between 10 to 12 hours.
- In a pot on medium heat, add the glutinous rice flour and 140 ml of cold water and stir well until the flour dissolves.
- Bring the pot of rice water to the boil, stirring continuously as it cooks.
- Remove the pot from the heat once the texture resembles glue.
- Set aside the pot to cool.
- Place fresh chilli, garlic, ginger, sugar and fish sauce in a blender and blitz well.
- Add chilli powder into the blitzed aromatics and stir well until dissolved.
- Mix the rice mixture and blended aromatics to create the marinade.
- Rinse the salted cabbage with water lightly and strain it for 1 to 2 hours until it's well-drained.
- Rub the cabbage with the prepared marinade.
- Put the marinade and salted cabbage into a container and leave it at room temperature for two days.
- Place the kimchi in the fridge for two days and store at below 4˚C for one month.
- If kimchi doesn't taste ready after one month, leave it for two more weeks until it's adequately fermented.
Note: Korean chilli powder and fish sauce can be found at Asian grocers.
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