Back in the day I had a part-time job as an interpreter, and my administrative liaison happened to be an incredibly hot Belgian chick. Sadly, my assignments were infrequent, affording little opportunity to apply my game, as it were. Not making excuses; just saying. Unfortunately, the one time I encountered her in the wild I was massively lit, and the wittiest opening line I could muster was something like, “Yeah, so, you must really know a lot about chocolate being Belgian and all.” The withering glare she wore in response was the honest form of the smile I myself fake, when random strangers giddily bring up the topic of kimchi upon learning of my Korean-ness.
Don’t get me wrong, I love me some kimchi, but having Korean identity summed up in a single thing gets tiresome. Nonetheless, it’s our most famous contribution to the world, and a complex, fascinating subject on its own — we are only now uncovering the myriad nutritional benefits of this ancient food.
Though kimchi is almost always associated with cabbage, summertime elicits in me a craving for a lesser-known variety called oi sobaegi, or stuffed cucumbers. (Pronunciation tip: It’s oh-ee so-beh-gee; say the O’s like you’re from Minnesota, and stress all syllables equally.) It has amazing crunch, a good balance of sweet, salt, acid, and heat, and is even engineered for easy chopstick-enabled consumption. It also lacks the stank of cabbage kimchi, since it’s less fermented and is free of the responsible noisome compounds. As an added bonus, it’s way easier to make.
Cucumber kimchi is among the most ancient forms of the dish, closely resembling achar, the pickled vegetables that first appeared in India and Nepal 3,000 years ago. The preparation migrated into China as changchae, and eventually became known as kimchi (a phonetic variant of the Chinese term) in Korea. Changchae means salted vegetables, which is kimchi in its simplest state — vegetables in salty water. A salty environment, stable temperature range, and lack of oxygen (thus the water) encourages the growth of “good” bacteria, in this case lactobacilli. They ferment the vegetable by consuming carbohydrates and crapping out useful stuff like B-vitamins, as well as organic acids, which, while contributing flavor, kill off other, less-desirable microbes. Among these “bad” bacteria are those responsible for putrification, so in fact kimchi is quite the opposite of “rotten cabbage,” as the unenlightened like to sometimes quip. The ancient practice of burying clay jars of kimchi was a way to regulate temperature and prevent freezing during winter months before the advent of modern refrigeration.
Lactobacilli perform the same vital functions in your intestines, and consuming them in foods like yogurt and kimchi helps your body maintain a healthy herd. Fermentation renders kimchi more digestible than raw vegetables, without the nutrient-damaging heat of cooking. Also, the garlic and chile peppers combine to produce cancer-fighting compounds. The health benefits are no doubt numerous, but immunity from SARS doesn’t seem to be among them, despite recent buzz in Korean media.
The lactobacilli contribute a distinct savory flavor to kimchi. These same critters are also responsible for the rich, round flavor found in aged cheeses, dry salami, and even your finer wines. Lactobacillus, thank you, sincerely. — Humans.
Other flavors prevalent in kimchi are tanginess from the organic acids, slightly sharp fizziness in older, longer fermented kimchi from CO2, and, of course, spiciness from chiles. While it seems Koreans have long preferred spicy kimchi, it wasn’t until the 17th century that chile peppers were even introduced to the peninsula — peppers are a New World native, after all.
A salted, fermented protein is often added to provide more complexity and possibly accelerate fermentation, usually seafood such as shrimp or fish roe, which often smell a lot like a punch in the face feels. A less pungent, more convenient substitute is bottled fish sauce.
While cabbage kimchi may take weeks to achieve full flavor, cucumber kimchi is ready to eat after fermenting overnight at room temperature — home-pickling enthusiasts will note that Western-style pickles similarly begin to develop pickle flavor after just a couple of days. Cucumber kimchi’s fermentation is hastened by its preparation, wherein the cucumber is cut into shorter segments, then quartered lengthwise almost all the way, exposing more surface area to the brine but leaving the spears attached at one end. A spicy paste is slathered in and around the pieces, which are then left out overnight to ferment. Using as little liquid as possible to cover the kimchi is important, since too much water will dilute the spice. Packing tightly helps, and a suitable container is key. Obvious solution: a used pickle jar! To heinously misappropriate the Bard: Eat the pickles, and then eat the pickles. It’ll keep refrigerated for a week.
The semi-quartering process makes separating the cucumber into nice, wieldy chunks easy, even for chopstick noobs. Follow my mom’s easy recipe (Hong’s mother is the owner and chef at the Suzie’s Soba restaurants) available below, sit down to some rice, oi sobaegi, and perhaps a glass of cold barley tea, and partake of a facet of the Korean experience brought to you by the cooking wisdom of the ancients. Oh, and our pals, lactobacilli. •
Sue Hong’s Easy Oi Sobaegi
6-8 medium Korean cucumbers or 8-10 Kirby or pickling cucumbers or 3-4 seedless hydroponic cucumbers (do not use the smooth, dark green “slicer” cucumbers, as their skin is too thick and seeds too hard)
1/2 c Korean red pepper powder
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 c finely chopped scallion or chives
1/4 c coarse sea salt, or slightly less to taste
2 t fish sauce
1 t sugar
Cut the tips off both ends of the cucumbers (this will ensure crunchiness), then cut them into two- to three-inch segments.
Quarter the segments lengthwise, cutting almost but not all the way through, leaving four spears attached at one end.
In a bowl, salt the pieces thoroughly with sea salt, and allow to rest for two hours.
In another bowl, combine all other ingredients and enough salt to make the mixture quite salty, but not overpoweringly so. Add just enough water to make a thick paste.
After the salted cucumber has rested, wipe off any remaining salt and discard any collected liquid.
For each segment, using a teaspoon, generously smear the spicy paste in between the cucumber spears, which should still be attached, but a bit more flexible now.
Pack the cucumbers tightly in a glass or stainless-steel container, vertically if possible.
Add fresh water to the bowl that contained the spice paste, swirl and rinse any remaining paste into the water, and pour over the cucumbers, adding only enough to barely cover them.
Cover the container and allow it to rest at room temperature overnight or for about eight hours, then taste for sharpness and acidity. If desired, leave out for up to 12 hours before refrigerating for up to a week.