Ask Peter: Kimchi and sauerkraut
We’re keen to try making our own sauerkraut and kimchi. How does the process for the German vs the Korean dishes vary? At what point does the chilli and garlic go into kimchi? We loved your kimchi brussels sprouts at Taste of Federal Street and would love to try doing that.
Thanks, Ann and Alister.
I’m pleased you liked the kimchi at the Federal Street event. I certainly enjoyed serving it with the venison and chocolate mole sauce — and I do think everything came together really well, alongside the smoked mashed potatoes (that I also added some kumara to). For some people fermented foods are simply too strong and aromatic to eat, in the way that a washed rind cheese isn’t for everyone. But it’s exactly that sour, briny, slightly pungent aspect of the foods that I really like.
Fermented foods came about, like so many cooking methods, as a way of preserving when seasons changed and our ancestors didn’t have fridges or freezers. Smoking meats and fish, salt curing, and brining are other ways. Fermented foods are considered hugely beneficial in keeping us healthy, especially keeping our gut healthy.
They contain live probiotic bacteria, so when we eat something fermented properly, we ingest zillions of these bacteria which then move in and camp in our digestive system, helping cure all manner of modern stomach and bowel issues and helping with digestive enzymes. And lastly — but this list could be endless — the process of fermentation also breaks down the cellulose in things like cabbage, brussels sprouts etc, making it far easier to digest, with a higher nutrient count. So, what’s not to like, or at least appreciate?
When I was in Kyoto I ate an awful lot of nukazuke, which is a Japanese pickle made by fermenting vegetables in a rice bran slurry that has been “charged’’ with lactobacillus, introduced to the bran in a similar way that wild yeast is introduced to sourdough bread and some marvellous wines. In Kyoto they do wonders with eggplant, cucumbers, daikon and many other vegetables and these vegetables are eaten at the end of the meal and are known to aid digestion for all the same reasons I’ve mentioned above.
Kimchi and sauerkraut have a similar process of fermentation, but the flavourings they contain are unsurprisingly exactly what you might expect from the nations they were created in.
Sauerkraut (sour cabbage in German — and it’s good to know it’s called choucroute in France) is basically shredded cabbage (red or green) massaged with salt and often caraway seeds until it bruises a bit and releases its natural juices. It’s then packed into a jar, making sure there is enough brine sitting on the surface (to prevent nasty bacteria landing there). Whole cabbage leaves are sat on top, as a natural seal, and then it’s left to gently bubble and ferment for anything up to two weeks before being ready to eat.
Kimchi, on the other hand, comes from Korea and it is made not by shredding, but cutting into chunks, the separated leaves of less firm cabbage, such as wong bok – in the dish you ate I used brussels sprouts leaves, separated from their stalk. The cabbage is tossed with salt and left to sit overnight, before being drained the next day. It is then added to a thick sludgy brine made with (typically) loads of garlic, ginger, fish sauce, soy sauce, and sugar. The key ingredient though is kochukaru, Korean chilli flakes, which you can usually find in Japanese grocers if you don’t have a Korean supplier near to you.
Mix it all up, adding some grated carrot and spring onions, and possibly even some pounded dried shrimp, and place it in the fridge, covered tightly. In a week it’ll be delicious, in two weeks even more so.
I’d suggest you buy a book on the subject as there is a lot to make sure you do properly — not least because you need to make sure you don’t make yourself ill from bad production. In the past, fermenting foods was done by many of our ancestors, and it would be fabulous for all sorts of reasons if we picked up the baton and carried on.
What you may not know is that perhaps the first sauerkraut to arrive in New Zealand may not have been with German workers; it is likely to have been with Captain Cook, as I’ve read that he carried the stuff to prevent scurvy!
For more on fermented foods and drink, read Culture club.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.