It's a sunny morning on Queensbridge Road in East London—ideal weather for making kimchi. The last thing you need if you're fermenting veg into stinky, slimy, spicy (and extremely tasty) stuff like kimchi is cold weather.
I've come to meet Kylee Newton, a Londoner by way of the coastal town of New Plymouth, New Zealand. Newton sells an array of jams, chutneys, pickles, and preserves on her Newton and Pott market stall at nearby Broadway Market. Think gin-pickled cucumbers, baked peach and Vermouth jam, and feijoa chutney (a small, green tropical fruit often likened to guava).
And of course, there's the fabled kimchi. The way the world has fallen for Korea's fermented vegetable dish in recent years is quite the love story. With a purported 187 varieties, kimchi is so embedded in the consciousness of Koreans that it's regarded by many as a national mascot. In South Korea, there's a World Institute of Kimchi, while the Ministry of Agriculture has a dedicated kimchi department. There's even evidence that eating kimchi can make you less socially awkward.
Despite these accolades, it's pretty easy to make. Sure, there are kimchi professors out there but as Newton shows me her basic kimchi recipe, it transpires that all we need is cabbage, carrots, one mooli (a long daikon radish), a small onion, garlic, chunks of fresh ginger, and Korean gochugaru chili powder.
"Use a Napa cabbage," Newton tells me. "You want a firmer cabbage so it doesn't end up too sloppy. I got this one from the cornershop on Broadway Market."
We get started by chopping the veg. "Up to you how you do it but I like large pieces of kimchi," says Newton, as she slices the Napa cabbage from tip to root and peels ribbons from the carrots and mooli, chopping the pared down centres and dumping the lot in a big plastic container, before mixing with her hands.
As we slice, Netwon explains the health benefits of eating kimchi. It's full of good bacteria (a.k.a. the probiotics they sell those teeny bottles of Yakult) which promotes a healthy gut and an active digestive system. Eating kimchi regularly—with meals, before meals, and as a snack—helps Korean guts to keep on top of a rich, meat-heavy diet.
It's one of the reasons the dish has been crowned an "Intangible Cultural Heritage" by UN's cultural organisation UNESCO and has even been credited with helping South Korea fend off the SARS epidemic of 2003.
While kimchi is traditionally made with dried shrimp and fish sauce to encourage that umami tang, Newton's is entirely vegetarian. After submerging the vegetables in salted water, she blends the garlic, onion, and ginger paste, before adding the gochugaru powder to transform the boring cabbage and carrots into wondrous kimchi.
"Don't add too much garlic and ginger," warns Newton. "What happens with fermentation is that the flavour intensifies. You want to be careful with the more fragrant flavours. Tame your enthusiasm."
With the mixture combined (and suitable levels of enthusiasm), Newton drains the excess water topping the bucket of vegetables, careful to maintain some of it as a pickling brine. She then adds the paste into the vegetables before squeezing them to break down the fibres and start the fermentation process.
While the Western world may be embracing kimchi, South Korea is protective over its much loved dish, with many insisting its antibacterial qualities can only be bred on home soil, where the right combinations of water, temperature, and humidity exist.
As we transfer the kimchi into the pot it will pickle itself in, London's admittedly less humid climate doesn't seem to have been a hinderance. Newton tells me not to expose the mixture to the air though, as this causes it to go mouldy and produce bad bacteria. The concoction will now be left for two to four weeks, allowing nature to take its course.
While there is evidence that fermented foods can help combat allergies and even ward off coughs and colds, there's no guarantee kimchi will do the same job as a winter flu jab.
Still, it's worth a shot at making your own … if your housemates don't mind the smell.