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    pickled cabbage halves
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A Canon of Vegetables

A Canon of Vegetables

By Raymond Sokolov

Published 2007

  • About

There are as many kimchis as there are Koreans.* In the Korean diaspora as well as in Korea itself, the basic pickled cabbage, tongkimchi, which is the national condiment, the national dish, and the national folk panacea, starts out as Napa cabbage (aka nappa or celery cabbage or Chinese cabbage or in Korean, baechu [Brassica rapa var. pekinensis]), the big white-and-green, watery, crunchy cabbage now common in our markets.

The fermentation is a basic lactic-acid fermentation in a crock in brine. The cabbage leaves are first softened in the brine, then coated with the other ingredients, including pickled fish, tied up in packages, and left to ferment in the crock. Koreans have traditionally made their own kimchi, usually in the fall, the so-called kimjang, or kimchi-making season. Special markets open to sell standard ingredients. Corporations give kimjang bonuses to help workers out with the expense of making the huge quantities of kimchi that supply them with vegetable nutrition throughout the winter. By burying sealed crocks, they can keep a batch for several weeks in cold weather.

Kimchi is also an ingredient in many “made” dishes, especially soups and one-pot casseroles.

Koreans began pickling vegetables as far back as the twelfth century, but chiles did not become widely available until the eighteenth century, while Chinese cabbage was not introduced until the nineteenth. The name “kimchi” may have begun as shimchae (salted vegetables) and then evolved to dimchae, then to kimchae, and finally to modern kimchi. Many claims for the health-giving qualities of kimchi are made by proud, kimchi-loving Koreans. And Koreans act on these claims by eating even more kimchi than normal when disease threatens.

During the SARS scare, kimchi consumption went up. And in the spring of 2005, the same thing happened after scientists fed kimchi to thirteen chickens infected with avian flu. Eleven recovered.


  • ½ cup pickled corvina, a Pacific fish, available in Korean markets, cut into julienne strips
  • 5 heads Napa cabbage
  • cups kosher salt
  • 2 white Korean radishes, trimmed and cut into julienne strips
  • 1 cup cayenne, moistened to make a paste
  • White parts of 4 scallions, trimmed and cut into 2-inch sections
  • ½ bundle “green-thread” onions or Chinese scallions, cut into 2-inch lengths
  • ½ bundle Indian mustard leaves
  • Korean watercress, cut into 2-inch lengths
  • ¾ pound sponge seaweed, cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 2 heads garlic, peeled and pureed in a garlic press
  • Two 3-inch pieces ginger, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 cup pickled baby shrimp, chopped
  • ¾ pound shucked oysters, rinsed in lightly salted water
  • 5 dried red chiles, seeded and cut into very thin “threads”
  • ¼ cup sugar


  1. Cut the pickled corvina into thin strips and reserve. Boil the juice it was packed in with its bones and a little water for 10 minutes. Strain and reserve the liquid. Discard the bones.
  2. Pull off the outer leaves of the cabbages and reserve. Cut the cabbages in half lengthwise, starting from the bottom and stopping one-third of the way in. Complete the splitting of the cabbages with your hands. This does less damage to the inner leaves than a knife would.
  3. In a nonaluminum pot or crock large enough to hold all the cabbages, make a brine with 3 cups of the salt and 1 gallon (16 cups) of cold water. Stir until the salt has dissolved. Then immerse the cabbage halves and the reserved outer leaves. Let them soak for 4 hours, or until softened. Rinse thoroughly and drain.
  4. In a large mixing bowl, stir together the radish strips and the red pepper paste. Let stand for a half hour. Then mix in all the remaining ingredients.
  5. Spread all the leaves with the mixture from step 4. Wrap each filled cabbage half tightly with one of the reserved outer leaves. Set the wrapped cabbages back in the crock. Cover them with the remaining outer leaves. Press down on them lightly. Let the kimchi stand at room temperature for 24 hours in summer, or for 2 days the rest of the year. Then refrigerate. It will keep for a week or possibly more.

*48.5 million in South Korea alone. A short list of kimchi varieties includes:

  • Whole Cabbage Kimchi (Tongbaechu gimchi)
  • Wrapped-up Kimchi (Possam gimchi)
  • White Cabbage Kimchi (Paekkimchi)—it is not hot, so you may enjoy it!
  • Radish Kimchi (Yolmugimchi)
  • Water Kimchi with Fresh Ginseng (Susamnabakkimchi)—for your health!
  • Whole Radish Kimchi (Altarigimchi)
  • Radish Water Kimchi (Tongchimi)
  • Stuffed Cucumber Kimchi (Oisobagi)
  • Hot Radish Kimchi (Kkakttugi)

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