Think of Kimchi as a Verb
You can make these quick versions out of just about anything, including tomatoes and fennel.
In 1904, the Japanese military authorities arrested the American novelist Jack London. Three times. He was covering the Russo-Japanese War for the San Francisco Examiner as a war correspondent in Korea, and drew from his time overseas in a 1915 novel, “The Star Rover.”
“I know kimchi,” London writes, speaking through his characters. “Kimchi is a sort of sauerkraut made in a country that used to be called Cho-Sen. The women of Wosan make the best kimchi, and when kimchi is spoiled it stinks to heaven.”
This is one of America’s earliest written encounters with kimchi. London was right in the first regard: Kimchi is “a sort of sauerkraut,” a fermented dish that most often starts off with cabbage and salt.
As for the last comment, kimchi almost never spoils. Prepared correctly and with enough salt, it can ripen for months, even years, until it becomes mukeunji — kimchi that’s so concentrated in flavor that it burns the tongue and tastes wonderful when stewed.
Outside Korea, it took at least 100 more years for kimchi to go from so-called spoiled stink to it-girl pantry staple and poster child for gut health. Today, some would say that it’s not just a cornerstone of Korean cuisine; it is Korea itself.
Kimchi is also a verb. Most people think of the red-hot, fermented cabbage dish as a singular noun. But as one of the few Korean food words to make its way into English dictionaries (along with gochujang, bulgogi and soju — “a pint of which would kill a weakling and make a strong man mad and merry,” as London writes), kimchi is an umbrella term for a much larger world of dishes you can find on any given Korean table.
Here’s the thing: You can kimchi just about anything. Napa cabbage is most traditional, but radishes, scallions and cucumbers are also popular. Nutty, grassy perilla leaves (part of the mint family) make for great kimchi, as do ramps, apples and even raw squid.
And here’s the other thing: When you want the flavors of kimchi, but don’t want to wait for it to ferment, you could try a quicker alternative.
There are many ways to do this, but I like to combine vegetables with vinegar to achieve kimchi-like results, which I think of as “quick kimchi.” In Korea, these technically would be considered muchims, which can refer to any number of “seasoned” or “dressed” salads or other preparations.
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Since these quick versions bypass fermentation, they use a master sauce that is all purpose and absolutely versatile, borrowing from pantry stalwarts like gochugaru (a Korean red-pepper powder that’s sweeter and fruitier than it is spicy); funky, savory fish sauce (you can swap this out for soy sauce if you’re vegetarian); and toasted sesame oil for depth (or what Koreans call gosoham, which roughly means “nutty” or “tasty” — though there is no perfect translation).
The vegetables you choose to dress are entirely up to you. Juicy logs of smacked Persian cucumbers are excellent at picking up the fire-bright sauce in their craggy nooks and crannies. The light aniseed flavor of thinly sliced fennel, which stays crunchy days after, gains a buttery sweetness when marinated in the gochugaru and fish sauce. Snappy grape tomatoes — the green bell peppers of the tomato world — get a second chance once treated like kimchi. Toss these umami bombs with bouncy rice noodles for a quick lunch.
The important thing is to salt your vegetables and let them sit for about 30 minutes to draw out the excess water. They’ll maintain their crunch later. (Don’t toss this brine, either. It’s fabulous in a martini.)
Then it’s just a question of tossing the salted vegetables with the dressing and serving them like a side salad. Alongside grilled meats, pork chops, fish or even a simple bowl of white rice, these sides are a welcome crunchy addition to any cookout table.
Recipes: Smacked Cucumber Quick Kimchi | Fennel Quick Kimchi | Grape Tomato Quick Kimchi
And to Drink …
Pairing wine with Korean food requires versatile bottles, particularly if you are eating Korean-style, with many different dishes at once, each with pronounced flavors. The best solution is to look for wines with lively acidity that will refresh the mouth with each sip. Dry, breezy sauvignon blancs, sometimes as pungent as kimchi itself, would be good choices, as would grüner veltliners and many Italian white wines. For reds, I’d look at frappatos from Sicily and entry-level Loire reds. Jeannie Cho Lee, a wine authority from Korea, is not in favor of sweet wines with Korean cuisine. “Sweetness is not a common, obvious flavor on our dining table,” she wrote, “and added sweetness detracts from the integrity of the savory dishes.” ERIC ASIMOV