CHICAGO — When shortened days and chilly nights begin to whisper the coming of winter, kimchee-making season has arrived.
The pungent, fermented condiment is so vital to Korean culture that it is served at practically every meal, whether in a big city like Seoul, South Korea, or the small farming town of Marengo, about 60 miles northwest of Chicago.
Christine Lee felt that pull for the first time in October.
Lee had just adopted the country life with her new husband, Steve Freeman. Formerly president of Charlie Trotter Foods, the star chef’s manufactured foods line, Lee was working in Palatine at Whole Foods, supervising the chain’s popular prepared foods (Lee is now home awaiting the birth of her first child). Her husband was and is employed by Nichols Farm, located outside Marengo, managing its booths at farmers markets in and around Chicago.
The pair put down roots, literally, by digging a 10-by-15 garden at their rented farmhouse and planting vegetables. Among the crops: Napa cabbage and moo, the thick, roughly foot-long Korean version of the daikon radish. Both are traditional ingredients in kimchee.
“We were sort of diving into the whole country experience,” said Lee, who grew up in Wilmette, Ill. “I had always dreamed of making my own soy sauce and sesame oil.” And she dreamed of making kimchee (also spelled kimchi or kim chee).
“It’s part of my cultural heritage,” she explained, simply.
So, Lee called her Korean-born parents in Riverwoods and asked for directions. Her mother, Suk Chung Lee, was thrilled by the request. Her father, Sung Kyu Lee, also got involved.
Also eager to be on hand was one of Christine Lee’s friends, Mark Miller, the famed New Mexico-based restaurateur and cookbook author. Bradley P. Borchardt, a chef who does research and development for Arizona-based P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, rounded out the team.
Kimchee season in Korea is serious stuff. People work for days preparing and preserving scores of cabbages, radishes and other vegetables to last the winter. In Marengo, in contrast, they would be putting up just three kinds, but the quantity would be practically overwhelming to the newbies: 20 Napa cabbages, 40 moo radishes and 100 of the smaller knoblike bachelor radishes, also known as ponytail radish or chonggak moo.
Work tables were set up in the yard behind the farmhouse. A garden hose was used to wash the vegetables in large metal bowls and buckets. Cutting boards and sharp knives stood ready to slice not only the cabbage and radishes, but also the mounds of neatly peeled onions and garlic cloves that would help season the kimchee.
Once the process began, there were no measuring cups for Suk Chung Lee; everything was done by eye, bare hands and taste.
“Not ready yet,” she said, sampling a piece of salted, spiced cabbage.
She didn’t say much as she chopped a pile of moo radishes, but she didn’t hesitate to correct Miller politely when he was slicing a radish too thickly.
“A little bit thinner, please,” she told him. The chef instantly complied.
“I was there to learn as much as I could from an expert,” Miller explained later. “She was quite a taskmaster.”
Miller then helped stir in the red chili powder, called gochugaru, that gives kimchee its characteristic heat. Again, no measuring needed.
“How do you know if you need more chili?” Miller asked.
“The color,” Suk Chung Lee replied.
Finally, at the right time, Suk Chung Lee and her crew began packing the prepared cabbages and radishes into handsome, earthenware pots known as onggi in Korean. These pots hold the kimchee as it begins its fermentation outdoors. In a couple of days, it will go into the refrigerator and continue to cure over the coming months.
“I like to make kimchee for her,” Suk Chung Lee said of her daughter. “It’s what I know how to do. Koreans in Chicago, the second generation of immigrants, are not interested in Korean culture. I’m very lucky my Christine is very into it, and I can show her how to do this. I am so happy about this.”
She paused for a minute. “It’s not just the second generation of Koreans, it’s everybody who is losing this,”’ she said.
“I felt so blessed she would do this,” Christine Lee said as her husband, parents and friends sat down to a hearty Korean lunch. “My mother told me she was thinking about Korea and how she would have liked to see her grandmother. I just started crying.”
WHOLE NAPA CABBAGE KIMCHEE
Prep: 1 hour, 15 minutes Rest: 4 hours Ferment: 1-2 days; Cure: 2 weeks Makes: 6 quarts
Note: This recipe, called baechu tong in Korean, comes from Suk Chung Lee, who taught her daughter, Christine, how to make it. Large white radishes, sweet rice powder, red pepper powder, Korean salted shrimp, Korean watercress and fish sauce are available at Korean markets and some Asian stores.
- 4 large heads Napa cabbage, halved lengthwise
- 2 cups coarse salt
- 3 cups water
- 1 cup sweet rice powder
- 2 cups Korean red pepper powder (gochugaru)
- 1/2 cup fish sauce
- 10 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 piece (2 inches long) ginger, minced
- 1 large white Korean radish, peeled, cut in thin strips
- 1 1/2 cups Korean watercress, cut in 2-inch lengths
- 1 1/2 cups red mustard leaves, cut in 2-inch lengths, optional
- 8 green onions, cut in 2-inch lengths
- 1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup Korean salted shrimp, minced
- 3 tablespoons sugar
1. Wash the cabbage well and repeatedly until all the grit and dirt are removed; drain. Layer cabbage with the salt. Let sit at room temperature until the cabbage is wilted, 4 hours. Rinse to remove all the salt; drain thoroughly.
2. Prepare the seasonings: Place water in a saucepan. Whisk in rice powder. Heat to a simmer over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens, about 3 minutes; let cool.
3. Combine the cooled rice powder paste with 1 cup red pepper powder, fish sauce, half the garlic, half the ginger and salt to taste in a large bowl. Mix well. Dip or rub the cabbage halves into the mixture until well-coated. Transfer cabbage to another large bowl.
4. Put the radish in a large bowl; add remaining 1 cup red pepper powder, watercress, mustard leaves, green onions, yellow onion, shrimp, remaining garlic, remaining ginger and sugar. Mix well.
5. Fill each cabbage half with the radish mixture, working it in between the leaves. Fold the filled cabbages in half; place in a large glass or ceramic container. Press gently to remove any air pockets. Leave container, loosely covered, at room temperature. After 1 or 2 days, cover tightly and store in the refrigerator. The kimchee is ready to eat in 2 to 3 weeks and will last refrigerated upward of 6 months.