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A Master Fermenter Shares the Secrets to Her Kimchi Success

A kimchi crib sheet from the woman behind the jars at Portland’s acclaimed Han Oak restaurant

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From above, a series of Korean side dishes laid out on a table
Banchan at Han Oak
Nick Woo

Han Oak, the Northeast Portland Korean restaurant known for its crispy fried chicken, delicate dumplings, and seasonal vegetable banchan, is exactly the kind of place where you can feel comfortable eating alone. Because here, you’re not alone; you’re part of the family. (Need proof? See the Pacific Northwest episode of Eater’s Guide to the World, now streaming on Hulu.) For years, until just before the pandemic, owners Peter Cho and Sun Young Park lived in a small apartment within the restaurant space, behind a door off the hallway just across from the restroom. Their kids, Frankie and Elliot, still wander around the restaurant while Cho cooks and Park greets customers; occasionally, Cho will throw a toddler over a shoulder and pop by tables. And Cho’s mother, Myung Ja Cho, still makes the restaurant’s napa cabbage kimchi, a staple on the restaurant’s famous menu of banchan, the parade of small dishes made for nibbling alongside your meal.

The elder Cho has been developing this recipe throughout her 71-year lifetime. As a little girl, growing up on the Korean island of Jeju-do, Cho learned how to make kimchi alongside her grandmother. She then picked up various tricks from friends and family members over the years, and decades later, she’s still not sure it’s perfect. “I’m never finished,” she says. Be that as it may, people travel from all over the world to experience hers, stuffed in mandu or simply spooned alone onto a white plate.

Today, Myung Ja Cho sees her kimchi recipe as a living document: The amount of salt she uses, the time it takes the cabbage to brine, and the length of the fermentation all vary depending on the time of year and temperature at which it’s made. So while we can’t share her exact recipe, she has a few replicable secrets to her success for those who want to get started on their own edible life’s work.

A chef slices Korean radish into large bowls
Slicing mu
Devon Wardle

Step 1: Pick the right ingredients (at the right time)

There are, of course, hundreds of types of kimchi, made with everything from cucumbers to perilla leaves. The two versions Myung Ja Cho makes for Han Oak are a baechu kimchi, which primarily uses napa cabbage, and kkakdugi, which is made with mu, a large white Korean radish. The guidance below focuses on the baechu, which is primarily made of napa cabbage leaves but can incorporate smaller amounts of julienned mu for texture. According to Myung Ja Cho, it’s best to make this in mid-fall to winter, when cabbage and radishes are at their peak.

What to look for:

  • Cabbage: When picking a cabbage, look for one where the tips of the leaves are bright green; avoid cabbages that are too pale or white. The leaves should be tight, firm, and thin, not loose, soft, and floppy. When you cut into it, it should have a bright yellow color inside. A nice, sturdy cabbage means the leaves will stay crunchy after they ferment.
  • Radish: Choose a big, fat radish, white and yellow toward the bottom and turning bright green toward the stem and leaves. The process of picking a radish is similar to how you pick a watermelon — it should feel heavier than other radishes its size, which indicates serious water content inside. If it’s light, it’ll be too old and dried out.
  • Gochugaru: Gochugaru is a ground Korean hot pepper, key to the flavor and gentle heat of kimchi. Myung Ja Cho is a gochugaru purist — her sisters, who still live in South Korea, send her gochugaru from local growers. She believes gochugaru produced in South Korea is the best choice, because of the way they sun-dry their chiles, which makes for a rounder, more nuanced flavor. If you can’t find a Korean sun-dried gochugaru at your local store, you can order it online.

Step 2: Time to brine

Salting the cabbage is key to both preserving and seasoning the kimchi. How long you let it sit in its saltwater brine, though, depends on where you live and the salinity of the water. If you’re living in California without air conditioning, keep it in the water closer to six or seven hours; if you’re in a chilly kitchen, it can be more like four or five. You’ll know it’s done when the leaves look slightly wilted. The amount of salt also varies depending on how much cabbage you’re using, but Cho says you should use as little salt as you can while also allowing for safe fermentation — that’s about 3 percent salt to water weight, similar to ocean water. Cho prefers Korean coarse sea salt, but a plain old sea salt works in a pinch. After you’ve added your salt to the cabbage, trim, thinly slice, and wash your radish before tossing it in a dry brine of salt.

Gloved hands mix a chili paste marinade in a large bowl
Making the marinade
Devon Wardle

Step 3: Make your marinade

While your ingredients are brining, mix up your marinade. Exact amounts and ratios are mostly based on personal preference (hint: do a lot of tasting!), but there are usually a few crucial components to each formula:

  • First, something to loosen everything up: Instead of using plain water for a kimchi marinade, Myung Ja Cho uses dashi or vegetable broth for extra depth.
  • Whip up a rice slurry: Then, combine your dashi and rice flour and bring both to a boil; the slurry should end up decently thick. This will help the marinade cling to the cabbage. A Kimchi marinade shouldn’t be too pasty; set aside some extra broth to adjust the consistency once you’re finished. Myung Ja Cho adds her gochugaru to the warm rice slurry, which helps it bloom.
  • Blend some ginger and alliums: Garlic, onion, and scallions are the main aromatics in a lot of Korean cooking (or cooking anywhere in the world), including kimchi. Give some onions a rough chop, thinly slice some ginger pieces, and peel a lot of garlic — all of these will go in a blender. Now is also a good time to slice up some scallions, which will go in your kimchi at the very end.
  • Put in something sweet: Grated Asian pear or apple bring just a touch of sweetness to the kimchi, but some people add straight-up sugar. Others contribute all three — just think about how sweet you’d like your kimchi to be. Factor in the sweetness of your cabbage and radish — if they’re peak season, that might contribute a lot of sweetness, which makes the extra sugar less necessary.
  • Add something fishy: Fish products, like fermented salted shrimp or fish sauce, provide that signature kimchi funk. Cho uses a combination of fish sauces, including Korean Canary fish sauce, and adjusts to taste.

Add your onion, pear, apple, garlic, and ginger to a blender or food processor with a splash of the dashi or broth. In a separate bowl, mix up the slurry, fish sauce, and gochugaru. Combine the two liquids, and boom — you have a marinade. Cho says you’re looking for a saucy, smooth texture that’s not too thin. Taste and adjust ratios as you see fit: If it’s too fishy, add a little more of the pear, or vice versa. Remember, once the mixture has aged, the tanginess will increase, but the fishiness will mellow.

Gloved hands mix kimchi in a large plastic container
FInishing the kimchi
Devon Wardle

Step 4. Rinse and combine

Before you mix the marinade and vegetables, you need to rinse the salt from the cabbage thoroughly. Cho rinses it twice, then lets as much of the water drain as possible. No need to rinse your radishes; they’re ready to go as soon as they’re drained from the brine. Once the cabbage and radishes are ready, they should go in a marinade. Other things to add, for those so inclined: scallions, mustard leaves, green onions, or Korean chives known as buchu.

Step 5: Wait (or don’t)

If you’re into salty, less tangy fresh kimchi, you can go ahead and dig in, but fans of funky-acidic fermented kimchi should stuff the cabbage in a jar (fermenting jars are your friend here: They let gas escape without letting in dangerous bacteria), seal it up, and stash it in a dark and shady place. A full-blown kimchi fridge is a good choice for hardcore kimchi aficionados; otherwise, a cool corner of your kitchen will do just fine.

Once again, Cho says the final fermentation time depends on the temperature outside and how funky you want to ferment your kimchi — in warmer days, the fermentation kicks in in 12 to 24 hours; in cooler weather, it can take two to three days. You can tell it’s properly fermented when you see little bubbles traveling up the sides of the jar. From there, It’ll continue to slowly (and safely) ferment in the fridge. (Pro tip from Eater LA editor Matt Kang of K-Town fame: If you don’t want your fridge and everything in it smelling like kimchi, wrap the jar tightly with a plastic bag.) When and how you eat or prepare your kimchi is up to you — often, lightly fermented, younger kimchis (a few weeks) are great for cold dishes or eaten plain; heavily fermented, older kimchis (up to three months) make for exceptional soups and stews, like kimchi jjigae.

Step 6: Put it in, on, and over, everything

Jal meokkesseumnida! (In other words, you’re about to eat well.)