In the kitchen of Walker’s Tap and Table, the Glenwood restaurant where he is executive chef, Chad Wells cooks up New American staples like brick oven pizza and smoked wings. But when he’s dining at home, Wells often eats kimchi made from napa cabbage that has been fermented and seasoned.
“I’m really big on that spicy, briny flavor profile,” Wells said. He adds it to everything from beef sandwiches to tacos to salads. He compares it to chow chow, the pickled relish popular in the South. “I think it’s a cool way to give flavor to thing and add texture at the same time.”
Wells has learned what Koreans have known for thousands of years. Fermented cabbage and other vegetables make a great anytime snack, side dish and topping.
Having a meal without kimchi? “That‘s impossible,” says Hyosun Ro, a Korean-American mom and home cook in Northern Virginia who runs a recipe blog. “We always have kimchi with a Korean meal. … The meal is not complete if there’s no kimchi.” Her website, Korean Bapsang, includes more than a dozen recipes for kimchi, which she defines as “a collective term for vegetable dishes that have been salted, seasoned and fermented.” A traditional version is made with napa cabbage and radishes.
Kimchi could be a dish in itself: “Sometimes we just crave eating a bowl of rice with kimchi; that could be a meal for us,” Ro said.
Ro and other Korean Americans love kimchi not just for its bright flavor, but for its health benefits. During fermentation, kimchi acquires healthy bacteria called probiotics that some say can help with digestion and other bodily processes. “It’s like eating yogurt every day with every meal,” Ro said.
But as with many dietary matters, it’s up for debate. Nutritionists warn that more research is needed on the topic to verify whether fermented foods are really good for you. Some studies have blamed kimchi for South Korea’s high rates of gastric cancer, while others say eating kimchi can help people lose weight.
Sarah Ganginis, an Ellicott City dietitian, discourages people from labeling foods “good” or “bad.” “It’s more about having a healthy relationship to food. Not having shame or guilt around food choices,” she said. “If it’s a food you enjoy, then go for it. If you don’t enjoy it there are many foods you can get a variety of nutrients from.”
For Koreans, kimchi is a huge part not only of diet but also of identity, one recognized by UNESCO in 2013 as part of humanity’s intangible cultural heritage. Traditionalists like Kong Kim, an 80-year-old Ellicott City resident, prefer to make their own. Kim, who grew up in Seoul, learned to make kimchi from her mother, techniques that have been passed down through generations. Kim has her niece send her the necessary red pepper, or gochugaru, from her homeland.
“We Koreans live and die by good gochugaru,”says Ro, who, like Kim, relies on family to send the pepper from Korea.
Don’t have a connection in Korea? Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. “Less than perfect kimchi is better than nothing,” Ro said.
“Kimjang season,” the communal act of preparing kimchi, typically happens in the late fall. That’s when many Korean-Americans including Maryland first lady Yumi Hogan make large batches, brining leaves of napa cabbage and other vegetables to last through the winter. Like many, Hogan has a dedicated kimchi refrigerator — she famously brought hers to the governor’s mansion in Annapolis.
Cooks like Kim and Ro insist that homemade kimchi is the best. It’s also time-consuming, taking about three days per batch, though we’ve included Ro’s recipe for a simpler version below. Today, many Koreans in Asia and America prefer to buy theirs pre-made. So does Wells, though he has prepared his own before. “Mine’s not the best,” he said. “I’d rather go to somebody who can do a better job than me.”
A few places to buy and eat kimchi in Howard County
Siroo & Juk Story
Kimchi is a specialty of this Korean cafe, where customers can purchase it in large containers to go, or taste it in dishes like kimchi juk, a rice porridge mixed with fermented cabbage.
10176 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City. 443-325-5330. siroousa.com
The Asian supermarket with a sprawling branch in Howard County has a well-organized shelf of kimchi, offering specialties like vegan kimchi — made without salted shrimp — as well as country-style kimchi with oysters.
3301 N Ridge Road, Ellicott City. 443-574-3456. hmart.com
Near H-Mart, Lotte Plaza sells a wide range of kimchi, including varieties made with cucumbers, radishes and other vegetables. Customers who want to load up can also buy entire heads of cabbage that have been fermented.
8801 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City. 410-750-9656. lotteplaza.com
A variety of kimchi and other banchan, or small veggie side dishes, accompany traditional entrees at the beloved Ellicott City Korean barbecue spot, once visited by TV’s Andrew Zimmern.
8801 Baltimore National Pike #27, Ellicott City. 410-461-3280. shinchonmd.com
Hyosun Ro’s recipe for easy kimchi at home
The Korean word “mak” means “carelessly” or “roughly” (generally used as an adverb). The name mak kimchi (막김치) suggests this is carelessly (or roughly) made kimchi. The name comes from the shortcut method used to make this an easy kimchi, at least as compared with the method used to make traditional kimchi (aka pogi kimchi).
Pogi kimchi (포기 김치) is made by quartering the napa cabbage heads, salting for many hours, and carefully stuffing each leaf of the quartered cabbages. To serve, the cabbage quarter is cut into bite-sized pieces. To make mak kimchi, roughly chop the cabbage into small pieces before salting and then toss it together with gochugaru (Korean red chili pepper flakes) and other seasoning ingredients. This method takes less salting and fermentation time.
When I make this easy kimchi recipe, I almost always add some mu (Korean radish) just like my mother and mother-in-law used to. Not only does kimchi taste more refreshing with the radish, but it’s like having two different kinds of kimchi in one dish.
If you like lighter-tasting kimchi, simply reduce the amounts of gochugaru, salted shrimp, fish sauce, and/or garlic. If you don’t have salted shrimp, just add more fish sauce (and salt if needed) to achieve the desired salt level. You can dress it up by adding other ingredients like Korean pear, oysters, garlic chives, etc.
Homemade kimchi will continue to age in the refrigerator and will be good for a month or two, depending on the salt level.
There’s no argument that pogi kimchi has a deeper flavor and better texture because of how it is prepared. Nevertheless, for something simpler and quicker, Korean cooks turn to this mak kimchi.
2 medium napa cabbages, about 8 pounds
1-1/4 cups coarse sea salt, less if using finer salt
6 cups water
1 Korean radish mu (about 1-1/2 pounds)
1 tablespoon coarse sea salt
5-7 scallions, roughly chopped
1 cup gochugaru Korean red chili pepper flakes
1/3 cup saeujeot salted shrimp, finely minced
4 tablespoons myulchiaekjeot fish sauce
1/4 cup minced garlic
2 teaspoons finely grated ginger
1 tablespoon sugar
large bowls, preferably at least 7-8 quarts
airtight container s or jar(s) — about 1-1/2 gallons
1. Cut the cabbage into quarters and remove the core from each quarter. Cut each quarter crosswise into bite sizes (about 1-1/2-inches).
2. Place the cabbage pieces into a large bowl. In a smaller bowl, dissolve 1-1/4 cups of salt in 6 cups of water. Pour over the cabbage. Toss well to wet the cabbage pieces evenly with the salt water. Let stand until the white parts are bendable, about 2 hours, turning the cabbage pieces over occasionally.
3. Cut the radish into bite sizes (about 1-1/2-inch square, about 1/4-inch thick). Sprinkle with a tablespoon of salt. Toss well. Let it sit for about 30 minutes. Drain. Do not wash.
4. Mix the chili pepper flakes with the remaining seasoning ingredients along with 1 cup of water.
5. Rinse the salted cabbage three times and drain to remove excess water.
6. Add the radish, scallions and seasoning to the salted cabbage. Using a kitchen glove, mix everything by hand until the cabbage pieces are well coated with the seasoning mix. Place the kimchi in an airtight container or a jar.
7. Rinse the bowl with 1/2 cup of water by swirling around, and pour over the kimchi.