Fermentation is a bizarre concept. When did humans get over their fear of all things microbial, choosing instead to actively grow bacteria in their food for days or weeks and subsequently ingest the result? Well, apparently Aristotle really liked pickles, and he predates the first microscope significantly... so I guess I have everything backwards.
My first attempt at fermenting was for sourdough bread from scratch – in retrospect way too ambitious of a project for a beginner cook. I’d just finished reading Cooked by Michael Pollan, the book that precipitated my love for slow-braising a cheap cut of meat to succulent perfection after blasting its exterior to a matte caramelized bronze… but although the section on fermentation was equally inspiring, I flunked my initial trial. My sourdough starter was mostly lifeless, but I was somewhat encouraged by its faint salty-vinegary smell and proceeded with Pollan’s next set of directions regardless. Unsurprisingly, the few yeast microbes that may have been present were no match against an enormous mass of flour and water. And although this dough remained stubbornly dense, I popped it into the oven anyway - after two weeks of obsessing over my flour-baby, it seemed anticlimactic to not see it through to the end. A flat, acrid pancake was the end-product of days of vigilant attention and relentless Googling. I’ve stuck to commercial yeast ever since.
Pickling kimchi is significantly easier. Maybe our microbe friends prefer inhabiting flavorful ingredients – crunchy greens, onion and other aromatics, stinging hot gochugaru flakes. In any case, I’m 100% in favor of this set-and-forget recipe. Traditionally, kimchi is made with napa cabbage, but when you’re cooking for one, an entire cabbage is hard to use in entirety. Bok choy was the perfect substitute, with a clean enough taste to serve as the foundation for a spicy briny kick. I’d love to try this with bamboo shoots as well. Would my bok choy kimchi, served here with grilled tofu, shiitake mushrooms, a 6 minute egg, and tart raw radishes, get the Aristotle stamp of approval? I think it would.
Kimchi'ed Bok Choy Recipe (enough for two 12 oz jars)
- 3/4 to 1 lb of bok choy
- 1 tbsp of salt
- 1 small onion, chopped roughly
- 1 scallion
- 3 cloves garlic
- 0.5 in ginger, sliced
- 1 tsp fish sauce
- 1 tsp shrimp paste
- 3 tbsp Korean chili flakes (gochugaru)
- 1 tsp sugar (optional)
- 1 tsp rice vinegar
- Sesame seeds (optional)
Clean the bok choy and separate the leaves. Soak in water with 1 tbsp of salt for 2 hours, then drain well and chop into small segments.
Add the onion, scallion, garlic, and ginger and blend to a smooth paste. Mix in the fish sauce, shrimp paste, chili flakes, sugar, rice vinegar, and sesame seeds (if using).
Using a spoon or gloved hands, rub the paste into the chopped bok choy. Pack into jars, leaving some space as gas will be released as the kimchi ferments. Leave for a week and enjoy raw or cooked.