I’m not a particularly picky eater (maybe my family would say otherwise), but honestly although I’m wary of certain meats (and don’t eat beef or pork), I’ll pretty much eat whatever you put in front of me. I wasn’t always that way, though, especially when I first started eating Nepali food, in particular achaar.
My first encounters with fermented foods (where I actually recognized them as fermented) were in Nepal. Many Nepalis eat achaar, which is an often-fermented vegetable or fruit that accompanies the meal. During my first few meals of daalbhaat (daal and rice), I cringed at the spicy, sour and sometimes bitter taste of most achaar. It was too much for my tastebuds. But as with most Nepali food, I grew to love and crave it. In fact, of all the Nepali foods that I am hankering for, achaar is on the top of the list.
Fermented foods may make you uneasy (like they did me) when you learn that they play host to an ecosystem of bacteria, but once you get past that, you’ll never go back. While we were in Nepal, people would bring over some of the most incredible tasting pickled foods like gundrukko achaar (dried and fermented lettuce leaves), mulako achaar (fermented radish), and lapsiko achaar (fermented lapsi fruit–the sweet and tangy bite of this achaar makes it a personal favorite).
In the US, its much harder to get achaar like you can in Nepal, and I’m woefully uninformed about how to make it. Once, while at my parents’ house, I tried to make lemon pickle from an Indian recipe we found online, but it became horribly sour and then rotted, stinking up the kitchen in the process. Apparently there is an art to making delicious fermented foods, and although I am at a loss for how to do it, both my mom and my brother are really good at it. My parents visited a few weekends ago and brought with them a jar full of crunchy, homemade sauerkraut (a Ukrainian/Russian dish of fermented cabbage). I can’t get enough of its mouth puckering sourness.
My brother also makes great sauerkraut and knows how to make kimchi as well, so I suggested that we make kimchi together this weekend. Today Tri and I went over to his apartment to start a batch.
Kimchi is a sour and spicy Korean side dish made from cabbage. You can buy it at most East Asian supermarkets, and it’s often served with the main meal at Korean restaurants.
Before we went to my brother’s apartment, Tri and I stopped at the local Asian supermarket to get napa cabbage, an Asian variety of cabbage and a key ingredient in kimchi.
Once we got to my his place, I started cleaning the cabbage and chopping it into big chunks. Here is the cleaned and chopped result:
My brother has a nifty pot that is used for making fermented foods. It has a lip around the rim into which you add water. After placing the lid on top, it forms a seal with the water that discourages mold spores from infriltrating the fermenting food. After I chopped the cabbage, we added it to the pot in small batches. My brother then poured in a big spoonful of salt with each new batch, some chopped green onions, chopped radishes, garlic, ginger, fish sauce, and chile paste.
After each new handful of cabbage, we would take turns mashing it really well. The picture to the left is one of us mashing one of the earlier batches. The idea with the salt and all the mashing is to get the cabbage to release water. After about 45 minutes of adding cabbage and working it over, I started to notice the water line rising. The water seemed to seep out all at once, and suddenly we had something that actually resembled kimchi. Here it is in all of its liquid glory…
None of that is added water! All of it’s from the cabbage.
After we had added everything and tasted the liquid to make sure it had all of the right flavors, my brother put ceramic plate-like weights on top of the mixture to keep the vegetables submerged, which further prevents them from getting moldy.
Now we wait. Because of the heat, it should only take a few days, maybe a week to ferment. I’ll update you when it’s done!