Kimchi: Tonic For the Winter Pandemic Blues

The Pandemic Pantry by Chef Molly Beverly

What do we need this winter? Kimchi!

Koreans have used kimchi for millennia to protect themselves from their freezing, harsh winters. Kimchi will keep you healthy, warm and happy at home while we shelter from the pandemic. Here's the mechanism. The specifics are in the recipe below.

Start with cabbage. Chinese cabbage is traditional, but head cabbage or any other leafy cabbage-family member will work. Slice the leaves; put them in a bowl; mix in some salt; toss with your hands. Weigh down the mixture with a plate and something heavy, like a nice washed river stone. Set aside to soak. Salt draws out the juices through osmosis, so after a few hours the leaves will be wilted. Rinse off the extra salt, squeeze the leaves gently and pour off the excess liquid.

A lot of Korean kimchi has no other vegetable additions, but there are hundreds of variations that consist of or include sliced and grated vegetables like carrots, mushrooms, cucumbers, daikon, turnips, broccoli, cauliflower, onions, beets (which will color everything red), even smoked or fermented fish.

The vegetables are covered in microscopic beneficial bacteria called lactobacilli, the same bacteria found in yogurt and probiotics. Lactobacilli tolerate the moderately saline environment. This same environment discourages harmful bacteria from growing. As the kimchi ferments, the bacteria break down the vegetables into nutrients that are easier to digest and absorb. We are lactobacilli! They live on our skin and line our urinary, genital, respiratory and digestive tracts. Kimchi and other live, fermented foods replenish that personal microbiome. Abundant nutritional science agrees that a healthy microbiome improves digestive health, disease resistance and a feeling of wellbeing.

Kimchi is defined by its spicy components, especially chilies. Before the Portuguese brought chilies (a New-World food) to Asia in the 16th century, kimchi had no spicy chilies at all! Over the last 500 years Koreans have embraced chilies with a passion. Spicy-hot chili has become the signature of kimchi, but it is not required. I blend chili spiciness to taste by tempering the hottest ground cayenne pepper with medium New Mexico chili powder and mild paprika powder. Fresh ginger and garlic round out the warming, spicy, stimulating flavor of kimchi. A tiny bit of sugar and soy sauce balance the sweet-salt-umami profile.

When everything is mixed together, pack it tightly into canning jars. Now we let it ferment. The lactobacilli produce lactic acid, which kills harmful bacteria, adds a flavor-balancing sour note, and protects the viability of Vitamin C (see Resources, below). There's a lot going on with the synergistic relationship between the fermented vegetables, spices and beneficial bacteria. Research shows kimchi consumption reduces the risk of cancer, strengthens the immune system, protects against flu and colds, decreases cholesterol, slows aging and strengthens brain health (see Resources).

As the lactobacilli work, flavors blend and mellow, forming a damn delicious condiment. Kimchi stands alone as a side salad and complements fish and meats, barbecue, beans and rice, and any Asian dish. Traditional Korean recipes call for kimchi cooked in fried rice, stews, soups and kimchi pancakes! Check out the Recipe Resources listed below.

Kimchi kicks the midwinter blahs. Try a new riff on the old BLT: bacon, kimchi and tomato!

Chef Molly Beverly is Prescott's leading creative food activist and teacher. Photos by Gary Beverly.

Kimchi: my interpretation, non-traditional

Makes 2 quarts


3-4 pounds Napa cabbage, rinsed and sliced (substitute all or part head cabbage, bok choy, kale, mustard or collard greens)

1/3 cup kosher salt

1 bunch kale (optional), rinsed and sliced

1 bunch beet greens or Swiss chard (optional), rinsed and sliced

Optional ingredients: grated or sliced thinly, include but not limited to

Daikon, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, mushrooms, Asian pears


3 tablespoons cayenne pepper, New Mexico chili powder or paprika (blended to taste)

5 cloves garlic, coarsely minced

2 tablespoons ginger, minced

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1 bunch green onions, finely cut

2 clean quart jars with rings and lids

On day one, put the leaves in to soak. Place sliced cabbage and any other leafy greens in a stainless steel, glass or ceramic bowl (do not use aluminum), and sprinkle them with salt. Toss well with your hands. Place a plate over the greens and weigh it down. Allow this to sit overnight.

On day two you'll find the cabbage and other greens very much reduced. In a colander rinse them well and gently squeeze out the water. Drain. Add all the remaining ingredients and mix well.

Tightly pack the kimchi into the jars. Press down with a wooden spoon until liquid covers the vegetables. Add a little water if necessary. Set the jars in a cool (60-70 degrees), dark spot, on a baking sheet. Lactobacilli give off carbon dioxide gas and bubble over, so jar lids need to be loose.

The next day you will see some activity: bubbling and leakage. Press the vegetables down, below the liquid. Add a little more water if needed. Do this daily. At the same time, taste it. It will build up an effervescence, so don't be surprised if the kimchi is fizzy. The longer you leave it to ferment, the more the flavors will blend and the more acid will be produced. When the kimchi tastes perfect to you, screw down the lids and store it in the refrigerator. For me this is at 7-14 days. Fermentation continues, albeit slower, in the refrigerator. It will keep for months. Just make sure there is some liquid covering the solids. Add a bit of water if necessary.


Korean recipes for making and cooking with many different kinds of kimchi:

Science-Based Nutrition Information

The Science of Lactic-Acid Fermentation

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