Kimchi was the special seasoning touch in some wonderful rice fried up by our dear neighbor; she handed out packages of this ambrosia to us fellow tenants. She also used to play us classical violin on the street, baked a cake for a family mourning the loss of their mom, and stealthily delivered a carful of topsoil and packs of seeds to my vegetable patch. But now we miss her company; she became a nurse, and works 12-hour shifts on Covid care for elders living with Alzheimer’s. That gives her Walking National Treasure status, if anything does for anyone. At the store in the refrigerated section there was something called Firefly Kimchi (7 ingredients — no additives), so I bought a jar for her. At this version of “sweets for the sweet” her thanks were so heartfelt that the other day I left her another jar, and this time bought a second jar for myself.
It was a bold move. Sure, I always add a little naturally fermented sauerkraut when making cole slaw. But for the most part I could never stand salty or sour or bitter tastes, or hot spices of any kind, or raw garlic, or more than a drop of ginger. But fermented kimchi has such a good health profile. At worst I could try a little bit and then take the rest to my neighbor. So for breakfast I dished up some hot sprouted boiled chickpeas with coconut oil and poached egg and turmeric, put the kimchi on top, and took a daring taste.
Gosh! All those strong flavors balanced out perfectly. The meal felt sustaining and solid but light. Since then, kimchi starts the morning off right. It goes with all kinds of breakfast foods — sprouted lentil vegetable soup, jasmine brown rice, leeks in bone broth, bitter melon (kû guā). A few days of kimchi even calmed down my cravings and stress-eating of sweets. That settled it: now I wanted to learn how to make my own.
I couldn’t wait to share this adventure with our Korean and Chinese neighbors. My telling them “This kimchi is great stuff” is of course comical, as if one of them ran up to me to say “Cookies and milk — a natural go-together!” But all of them were happy for me, and ready to share ideas.
For a first summer-weather attempt at kimchi making, one neighbor recommended the video “Quick-fermenting radish water kimchi with apple broth (Dongchimi),” with capable and sympathetic hostess Ms. Emily Kim, (“Work hard, stay humble”) on her Maangchi cooking channel.
First off, this venture was going to call for some proper fermented fish sauce. I consulted with two especially tech-savvy food-informed young ladies, one with strong roots in Korean culture, the other with encyclopedic knowledge of Chinese cooking. “What brand of fish sauce can you advise me to buy?” I asked them. “Without your help I might come home with glop that is all MSG and sugar.”
The two gave me a serious philosophical look.
“Mary,” said one. “MSG makes the WORLD go round.”
“Sugar too,” said the other.
The Wing family were happy to weigh in on my fish sauce quest as we shared the daily chore of watering the vegetable patch. (As I explain to the neighbors, in our garden enterprise Captain Wing is the brains of the outfit and I’m the brawn. He finds this hilarious.) Anyway, Mr. Wing was delighted by my new discovery of fermented vegetables, a staple of billions of people for thousands of years. He shared the tip that to round out the taste, I should add thin slices of a sweet juicy Asian pear. He also decided that on the next family trip north of town to the real Chinese grocery, they would buy me some real fish sauce.
Then a quick search on line found a Bloomberg.com writeup of Mr. Cuong Pham and his amazing success story crafting artisan Red Boat brand sauce, made only of black anchovies and salt fermented for one year, sold at specialty stores. At the peak of our staggering heat wave I did my grocery shopping at 11:00 one night, and started browsing the various fish sauces. Say! There was Red Boat, way off on a tippy top shelf. I bought two bottles, then texted the Wing Family. “Hello! It’s very late, but if you are available I have something to hand through your door.”
It was nice to walk home in the dark and see a bright rectangle of kitchen door light pop open beside the garden, and the Wing Family inside waving hello. They looked pleased by their Red Boat doorstep delivery, and the news that it turned up at our regular grocery store.
I watched Ms. Maangchi’s water kimchi video. Then I made a much less elegant tiny test batch. I sliced a cup of daikon radish, and shook it up in a Mason jar with a little fish sauce and salt to ferment on the counter all night. Then I simmered and blended and strained two apples and a sweet onion to make the stock. In the morning I poured the cold stock over the daikon, added raw garlic cloves, raw ginger, spring onions from the garden, paprika, and cayenne, then covered with a very light loose plastic lid. It’s been fermenting in the fridge ever since. It’s only an elementary first attempt, but to me it tastes fine. Dongchimi is bracing and light as a hot-weather flavoring for meals.
But best of all, it’s a real conversation starter with the neighbors. Now they go to every kind of trouble to send videos and to greet me with instructions, recipes, stories about Grandma back home and her pickled vegetable expertise, and encouragement. After my little fish sauce gift, the Wing Family swiftly retaliated by bringing me bitter melons from the real Chinese grocery, along with a special treat to go with that breakfast dongchimi — six pí dàn, preserved duck eggs.
I hope to learn and practice, work-hard-stay-humble, and treat the neighbors to a fermented vegetable product that will taste good to them. They are certainly good to me.