Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Kimchi Soup (Kimchi chigae)

Spicy Korean kimchi soup is just the thing for a hot, hot day.

Recently, I’m really into this spicy Korean soup of pork, tofu, and kimchi called kimchijigae, or kimchi chigae. I started ordering it from a Korean restaurant in Northampton, SooRa, and then I had it at Gohyang, the Korean restaurant in Hadley, the next town over, for comparison. I liked the SooRa experience more, possibly for sentimental reasons, because they were nice about how weird Kevin and I were the first time we went in there, on one of our post-bicycling food adventures, famished and just mowing through the banchan, pickles that accompany a traditional Korean meal, to the point of needing a whole round of seconds.

Kimchi chigae is principally flavored by kimchi and another traditional fermented ingredient, a savory fermented paste of soybeans, rice, chili peppers, and salt called kochujang. This is a flavor that was not familiar to me before I started eating more traditional East Asian foods, and one I would describe as almost yeasty. An ingredient that is commonly used instead of kochujang, doenjang, is another fermented bean paste with that same earthy, yeasty essence. On my second visit to SooRa, the restaurant that introduced me to kimchi chigae, I ordered a different soup, the doenjang chigae, which the waitress described as quintessential Korean dish, and it was sour and savory, without the brightness of kimchi.

Kimchi chigae is made very sour and spicy from the kimchi and a finely ground red pepper. The bulk of the soup is usually made with fresh cabbage as well as large amounts of fermented cabbage in the form of kimchi, and small amounts of pork and tofu. It’s eaten with rice and some sides of pickled vegetables. Each time Kevin and I made our way to a Korean restaurant, I sweated and slurped through my bowls of kimchi chigae and swore to learn how to make it myself.

I like to have food security, and one way I feel food secure is being able to make the foods that I really love to eat. I don’t like having to rely on someone else to provide a food I want. For a little while, I love the thrill of having favorite dishes that I can only get in certain restaurants, but pretty soon, I need to be able to replicate it at home. This is how my repertoire becomes peppered with recipes. For a while, I had access to a good Indian grocery and cookbooks, and learned to make several dishes, starting with what I loved to eat at my favorite Indian restaurant and then expanding into other dishes that used ingredients I wanted to cook. Now I can also make a handful of East Asian dishes, mostly what qualifies as “junk” or snack food, and so is familiar from restaurants: Pad Thai, phô. A copy of The Take-Out Menu Cookbook has made its way into my home, and while it does not include Korean, it is of an ambitious breadth, including such items as bagels from scratch and your own Thai curry pastes.

To learn how to make this new soup I was crazy about, I looked for recipes for kimchi chigae online, letting Google lead me to the proper name for “korean pork and tofu stew,” which I’d forgotten, finding several and amalgamating them to come to an idea of what a typical kimchi chigae consists of. When I wanted to learn to make phô, I did the same thing, studying different recipes until I had a platonic ideal of it in my head to riff off of. There’s no point in precision when it comes to dishes like this: every household will make it differently, and it’s made from living ingredients and leftovers, so it resists exact duplication. That’s the art part of cooking, separate from the science.

The one ingredient that has proven difficult to find is the kochujang. I’ve been scouring every store in bicycling range for this ingredient, and come up nearly empty-handed. Even Tran’s International Market, which seemingly has a whole aisle dedicated to bean pastes, did not have exactly what I was looking for. A national brand, Annie Chun’s, did not inspire, either, because like the only variety of kochujang that I did find at Tran’s, it contained wheat flour, making it unsuitable for my gluten-free husband. Also, because they were all shelf stable, I can only assume they were not living.

What I should have found was something like what I ended up substituting, which was miso. Every place I’ve shopped, looking for kochujang or doenjang and kimchi, have all had selections of misos in their refrigerated cases. We’ve been using some red miso plus a healthy shot of Sriracha sauce to get the kochujang effect in both the kimchi chigae I’ve been making about once a week for dinner, and in Kevin’s breakfast soup.

The other main flavoring in the soup is the kimchi, preferably kimchi that’s been sitting around in your fridge for a while, because it has more beneficial bacteria in it and a stronger flavor. Real kimchi is cultured, as are all traditionally made pickles. When shopping for kimchi, sauerkraut, or any kind of pickle, look for it in the refrigerated case. The ingredients should include only vegetables, salt, and water. There’s no vinegar in a real pickle.

A local company called Real Pickles in Greenfield, MA describes their traditional pickling processes on their website. They make an “Asian style cabbage” pickle available at River Valley Market. (The prices from their online store are comparatively high; it’s expensive to ship glass. Another reason to buy local.) It’s a more refined version of the kimchi I have eaten elsewhere, make of very coarsely chopped cabbage and streaky red with chili peppers. The Real Pickles variety of kimchi is fairly mild, light in color, contains leeks, ginger, and garlic as well as cabbage and peppers, and the pieces are more finely minced than other varieties of kimchi I’ve sampled. I prefer its flavor to several other varieties I've tried, though because it varies so much from the standard I've come to accept, it somehow doesn't seem as authentic. It's at least as authentic as last summer's moussaka: the real thing is always subject to change, including relocation.

Gohyang has an attached grocery store where they make their own kimchi. I’ve missed them being open before---I’ve stopped there a couple of times during the day, only to be reminded by their posted hours that they only do a dinner business. But there is another local flavor to add to my cooking pot when I get the chance.

Read more about living foods on my other food blog, Tin Foil Toque.

Photo credit: charlie applebottom/Flickr