Saturday, April 28, 2007

Kimchi Jjigae

Earlier this week I was looking through my fridge and noticed a very forlorn and suspicious looking object wrapped in a white plastic bag sitting in the corner of the fridge. At first it filled with me with foreboding since I had no idea what the hell it was. I almost asked myself, "Holy shit, is that a decapitated head?"

But then it dawned on me.

That's my kimchi.

According to the Food Lover's Companion, kimchi is:

"kimchee; kim chee; kimch'i [KIHM-chee] This spicy-hot, extraordinarily pungent CONDIMENT is served at almost every Korean meal. It's made of feremented vegetables—such as cabbage of turnips—that have been pickled before being stored in tightly sealed pots or jars to ferment. Many Korean families bury kimchee in the ground to better preserve it and dig it up to use as needed. Commercial kimchi can be purchased in Korean markets. It will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator."

--The New Food Lover's Companion, Third Edition; 2001

I'm not even going to go into the "WTF, condiment??" part (I guess it kind of is, but still), and I won't even go into how old school the whole jar in the ground business is when most people who live in the cities don't have access to a plot of diggable ground and the proliferation of kimchi refridgerators, but let us focus on that last sentence: "It will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator."

Even though people do keep their kimchi for months on end, I opened the jar up anyway just to make sure. Always make sure. I used to be cavalier about stuff like this until the one time I cooked and ate "The Chicken That Turned." I'm still more cavalier than others about what I eat, but stuff going bad I don't mess with.

The last time I remember opening this jar of kimchi was about 5 months ago. You heard me right. Opened it. Not bought it. I can't even remember when that took place. I gave it a taste to see how far it had gone in fermentation. I don't know how many kimchi eating folks read this, but there's new kimchi, then sour kimchi...then there's kimchi that is no longer, "Hey, I'll eat this with my ramen." It's more, "Yea...this needs to go into soup, or fried rice or something because it's taken on that alcoholic, slightly corn-like Frito-Lay aftertaste." I actually don't mind it when it's at this state (some people can't stand it), but it's absolutely perfect for soup.

So I was determined to make myself some kimchi jjigae (kimchi soup/stew) for myself. Luckily, Friday turned out to be quite dreary so it was great weather for something like this.

Kimchi jjigae requires fermented (sour) kimchi. You can't use new kimchi for it. And I don't even mean the slightly turned half-sour kimchi. I mean it needs to be sour for the best flavor. The quality of your kimchi will also determine how good the soup is. You can try to doctor it while making the soup, but terrible kimchi will yield not so great soup. But always, as with any cooking, taste what you're making while you make it. If you know what kind of kimchi you have you'll know whether or not you need to salt it or whatnot. For example, some people want it spicier and will add powdered red chile peppers to it. Usually though, you shouldn't need to salt or flavor it that much, but upping the heat is your preference.

First off, I like to punch up the jjigae with additions like scallions, onions and garlic. Actually, I think it's a bit necessary or else it'll just taste like...boiled kimchi and not really soup. While kimchi contains the above ingredients, you gotta realize it's been sitting in there getting soft and sour for a bit of time. It's just a ghost of its previous flavor, so a fresh infusion is necessary. I personally didn't have scallions on hand, but at least try to have some garlic.

I'm also adding a bit of pork I had in the freezer left over from when I made jjajang myun. Pork is the usual meat addition. It's not really, really necessary, but pork and sour kimchi just go so well together. Canned tuna also works and is a frequent secondary choice. I've seen spam or hotdog or weenies added before, but that's dangerously treading budae jjigae territory. You could make it without any meat obviously, if that's what you prefer.

Oh, in case you're curious, the "pot" I'm using here is a ddukbaegi.

I get the ingredients started with some sesame oil. Sesame oil has a low smoke point quite honestly, and is better used as flavoring, but I'm not trying to cook these ingredients, so it's ok here.

After a quick couple of turns, add kimchi. I also like to cook the kimchi a little before adding water because it draws out the juices and it'll be a good consistency without too much boiling.

Now, we need to add some water. How soupy you want it is personal preference. Some people like having a lot of soup, I personally like having it a bit more "casserole-y."

I've also added kimchi juice. Yes, I said kimchi juice. It's what keeps it from becoming just boiled kimchi as well. Now more juice means more stewy than soupy. Also, it adds more sourness to the soup too, so if you're not a fan of sour things adjust accordingly.

Cover and cook.

Now tofu is necessary. You may have kimchi jjigae without meat, but no tofu is heresy. I prefer silken tofu in mine, but nothing wrong with firmer varieties. Just stay away from the kind meant for frying/grilling. That's a little too hardcore. Now tofu is not meant to be "cooked." There's no such thing as raw tofu. I mean it might be unprepared, but overcooking tofu is a sin. That is why this goes in last. You just want it warmed.

And voila!

Man, I could live off of this stuff. I once went through a whole week where I had only kimchi jjigae for dinner.


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