Preservation Accepted: Mina Park On The Art Of Korean Fermentation
Time and patience—these are two things that are in short supply in the modern day. We live in a high-speed, 24/7-access Instaworld where a host of apps can get us whatever we want, whenever we want, to fit around our ever-lengthening workday. The hunt for 30-minute recipes has now turned into quests for 15-minute (and even five-minute) recipes. Our monkey minds tell us that we have zero extra time to squeeze out of our days. That’s why, to me, making fermented foods in my kitchen feels like a kind of meditative practice.
For many fermented foods, the number of ingredients required is often very few and the active preparation time is quite short. Once you have the food prepped and in a jar, it’s simply a waiting game—you just have to put aside your impatience and your desire for instant gratification. The longer you can clear your mind and yield to patience, the greater the rewards in terms of the complexity of flavour. Kimchi is a staple fermented food in my kitchen, being that I’m Korean. Once a batch of kimchi is made, it’s often fermented enough to enjoy after a week—and that’s but a blip on the fermentation timeline.
In 2016, I started experimenting with fermented hot sauces, starting with a recipe from Los Angeles restaurant Sqirl’s excellent cookbook Everything I Want to Eat. I had amassed a mountain of fresh habanero chillies and wanted to make something from them—and then I read through the recipe, which stated that the sauce had to sit for four weeks in a dark place after it was made. My monkey mind immediately said, “That is a whole month, Mina Park!” I took a deep breath and went ahead. And then I waited.
The resulting hot sauce was a revelation, with a flavour profile that was so deep and fiery, reminiscent of many Asian sauces. Since then, I have been playing with recipes with a variety of chillies, from fresh cayenne and Thai bird’s eye to dried guajillo and pasilla. I sometimes add aromatics such as garlic or shallots, have added sugars, and have played with using different vinegars to finish off the sauce such as rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar. This is where another virtue of fermentation becomes clear—you can play around as much as you like and time will usually be very forgiving.
The longer you can clear your mind and yield to patience, the greater the rewards. Making fermented foods in my kitchen feels like a kind of meditative practice.
In June, green plums (also known as maesil) are in season in Korea. They’re sour and firm, the colour of jade and covered in a gorgeous, fuzzy skin like a peach. I lugged home a small sack of maesil, ready to experiment. I had never played around with them before, but I wanted to try my hand at making umeboshi (Japanese salted green plums) and maesil syrup, which I often use as a sweetener in place of sugar.
For the umeboshi, I followed a recipe by American pickling guru Nancy Singleton Hachisu. I nestled the plums in salt and then—I’ll be honest—I completely forgot about them. More than three months later, I finally remembered to check on them and then realised I had missed a crucial step in Hachisu’s recipe, where I was meant to dry the plums after three weeks of salting. To my surprise and delight, the umeboshi were still divine, with a luscious, silky texture and an intense, profound flavour. I should learn to forget about my fermented foods more often, because thankfully, when it comes to fermentation, time is always on your side.
Salted Green Plums
A loose, absentminded adaptation of Hachisu’s recipe for umeboshi in Preserving the Japanese Way.
• Green plums
• Fine sea salt
1. Weigh your green plums. Then measure out 8% of that weight in fine sea salt.
2. Soak the plums in cold water overnight.
3. In the morning, drain them, put them in a large container and cover with the salt. Make sure you don’t cut or bruise the plums as you distribute the salt.
4. Cover the plums with a clean muslin cloth and put some weights over the cloth.
5. Forget about the plums and move on with your life.
6. If you’re an organised person and live in California or a non-tropical, non-polluted climate, you should remember the plums after about three weeks. Remove them from the brine that has developed and dry them in the sunshine on rattan mats resting among the plum trees. After three days of sunning, return the plums to the brine.
7. However, if you’re me, you will continue to forget about the plums.
8. When you do remember the plums three months later, eat them and enjoy. If you’re smart, make an ice cream out of them.
9. Strain the brine and use it as vinegar.
Fermented Hot Sauce
• Assortment of dried Mexican chillies (like arból, guajillo or pasilla), stems removed
• 3 garlic cloves
• 3 red shallots, peeled and halved
• 2 tbsp sea salt
• 75ml white vinegar
1. Depending on your spice preference and the spiciness of the peppers you’re using, you may choose to deseed the peppers.
2. Place them in a clean litre glass jar with the garlic and shallots. Leave about 10cm from the top of the jar.
3. Add the sea salt. Pour filtered water into the jar until the peppers are covered. Use a weight to keep the peppers submerged.
4. Leave in a cool dark place for at least two weeks.
5. When the sauce is properly funky, remove about half of the liquid from the jar. If there’s any mold on the top of the water, remove that first.
6. Blend everything with the vinegar until smooth.
Whole Cabbage Kimchi
• 2 large napa cabbage (baechu)
For the brine:
• 250g coarse salt
• 5L cold water
For the rice paste:
• 3 tbsp sweet rice flour (chapssal garu)
• 3 tbsp hot water
• 500ml water
For the marinade:
• 1 ¼ cup Korean red pepper powder (gochugaru)
• 1 daikon, julienned into matchstick-sized pieces
• 8 scallions, cut into 1 inch pieces
• 10 garlic chives, cut into 1 inch pieces
• 1 head of garlic, finely minced
• 4 tbsp finely minced ginger
• 60ml fish sauce
• 2 tbsp Korean salted shrimp (saewoo jeot)
• 2 tbsp sesame seeds, toasted
• Salt, to taste
1. Remove any wilted or bruised outer leaves and wash the cabbage. Slice each cabbage into fourths lengthwise.
2. For the brine, dissolve ¾ cup of the salt in the water in a very large container.
3. Separate each cabbage leaf individually and sprinkle the remaining salt on the inside of each leaf. Use more salt on the thicker parts of the leaf. Place the salted cabbage into the brine. If necessary, place a pot on the cabbage so that it is entirely submerged.
4. Let stand overnight, or at least 5 hours. The cabbage should be limp and taste extremely salty. Remove the cabbage from the brine and rinse under cold water. Drain the cabbage for a couple of hours.
5. For the rice paste, stir the sweet rice flour into the 3 tbsp hot water until smooth. In a medium saucepan, place the 500ml of water and the flour mixture. Stir on high heat until the mixture begins to bubble and thicken. Keep stirring to prevent the mixture from sticking to the pan. Once the mixture creates a thick coat on a wooden spoon, remove from the heat.
6. Mix 1 cup of the resulting rice flour mixture with the remainder of the marinade ingredients in a very large bowl. Mix well and season with salt to taste. Using your hands (covered with plastic gloves!), spread the marinade onto each leaf of cabbage and around the outside of each piece. Make sure every bit of the cabbage is coated with the marinade.
7. Pack the seasoned cabbage tightly into a clean glass jar. Make sure there are no air pockets in the jar. Leave at least an inch or two of room at the top; fermentation creates carbon dioxide and if your jar is full, you may have an explosion of kimchi all over your kitchen. Seal the jar and leave outside at room temperature at least one day, or 2 days if the temperature is cool. Then keep it in the refrigerator, ideally a separate refrigerator from the rest of your food like all good Koreans do. Be sure to keep your berries and other permeable foods in a closed drawer so they don’t taste like kimchi!
This story was first published in T.Dining Hong Kong 2018