by Bernard Lahousse
on September 19, 2016

How fermentation transforms napa cabbage into Korean kimchi

Korean kimchi and other fermented foods may be making appearances on trendy menus these days when, in fact, the practice of fermentation is one of the oldest methods of preserving ingredients. During the fermentation process, the conversion of the napa cabbage’s sugars (carbohydrates) into lactic acids further intensifies the kimchi’s complex flavor profile.

Korean Kimchi

Kimchi has been a staple of the traditional Korean diet for thousands of years. Baechu kimchi is the most common variety and is made from napa cabbage, gochugaru (Korean red chile powder) and other flavorful seasonings. But there are literally hundreds of other varieties that are made of everything from cucumbers to daikon radishes to leeks and even raw crab, depending upon regionality and seasonality.

The conversion of the cabbage’s sugars into lactic acids during fermentation intensifies kimchi’s complex flavor profile adding acidic, cheesy notes that are not present prior to the process.

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But how does fermentation affect flavor?

While baechu kimchi recipes may differ from kitchen to kitchen, we analyzed several common seasoning ingredients to understand how they factor into its complex aromatic spectrum.

To start, napa cabbage contains mostly green, vegetal aromas as its base. A mix of different flavorful ingredients are then sandwiched between the layers of cabbage leaves to season them as they ferment into kimchi. Some typical ingredients include garlic and gochugaru (red chile pepper powder), both of which give it vegetal aromas. Next, daikon, apples, ginger, dried shrimp and sand eel add a green-scented layer to the aromatic spectrum. The last three also lend kimchi their floral notes. Dried shrimp, which contains additional roasted and caramellic notes, accounts for a sizable portion of kimchi’s aromatic spectrum. Finally, to round things out, Korean pears and apples are sometimes favored for their fruity aromas.

The resulting aromatic profile of kimchi is complex and makes it an especially versatile ingredient to pair it with. As the bacteria naturally present on the surface of the cabbage and other ingredients begin to break down its sugars, moisture and carbon dioxide are released in the fermentation process creating lactic acids. Our aroma analysis reveals that fermentation adds acidic, cheesy aromas that were not present prior to the start of the process.

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Samgyeopsal: A classic Korean Kimchi pairing

Kimchi is typically consumed in Korea as part of the banchan (side dish) assortment that accompanys a meal. One classic pairing is baechu kimchi and samgyeopsal. These are thin slices of pork belly that are grilled together with onions and mushrooms at the table. Using either fresh perilla leaves or lettuce as wrappers, the crisp, hot samgyeopsal slices are eaten together with the baechu kimchi, grilled vegetables and pickled daikon radishes.

Other Kimchi pairings

Of course, if you're looking to experiment and create entirely new recipes, pairing kimchi with these other aromatic matches: coffee, chocolate, maracuja (passionfruit), eggplant, horse mackerel, lamb, Emmental cheese and mustard!

Fermented foods are also healthy!

Why should you include fermented foods in your diet? Aside from simply preserving ingredients, fermented foods are known to have added health benefits. The ingredients get an extra boost of vitamin B and other minerals while retaining their nutrients.

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Andre Chiang 'Jus des Idees (Juice of Ideas )' on Fermentation and Juices #FOTE2015

by Bernard Lahousse
Scientist, food aficionado and Foodpairing® founder Bernard Lahousse applies his scientific approach to food innovation and extends his knowledge to chefs and bartenders all over the world.

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