Wild Food: Kimchee

Search the Internet for kimchee (or kimchi - it is a Korean word so has no correct Latin alphabet spelling!) and you will find many recipes for it. However there seems to be very little about the process. For kimchee is a process - not a recipe. Kimchee is a method of preserving vegetables, even fruit and it is a method which is nearly exclusive to Korea.

My first experience of kimchee was on a business trip to Korea. There, kimchee is served with almost every meal, as a side dish. I tried some. It was so unlike anything I had ever tasted that I was not at all sure whether I liked it. Or was it simply the strangeness? So I tried another bit. I could not make up my mind - was it horrible or was it simply different? I don't like such conundrums, so I kept trying it until I could decide. Yes, it is distinctly moreish - but it is probably an acquired taste to most of us.

The process

This is very simple: prepared vegetable matter is left to ferment in brine. The vegetables can be leafy, or stalky or roots or fruits or a mixture.

The fermentation is not done by yeast, as we are used to in the west, but by naturally occurring bacteria. We in the west use bacterial fermentation to make cheese and other milk products and also to make vinegar. However, like a yeast ferment, it progresses more or less rapidly producing plenty of carbon dioxide. The ferment iq quicker at higher temperatures. In Korea, wide stone jars are used and the vegetable matter is weighted down with a stone during fermentation. It is left in the sun for warmth - but any other warm place is fine: something even approaching blood heat would seem fine.

The kimchee process is more like a mixture of acid pickling and cheese making - for the main acid produced by the process is not acetic but lactic. This is the same fermentation that is used to make sauerkraut, but in the west, that is the only such product. Hopefully, this page will help to change that!

The method

The vegetables are covered in brine: the overall strength seems best at around 2%, but (if you like it particularly salty) up to 4% can be used. Since the main ingredient in most vegetable material is water, I find it best to use enough salt to make the volume of the container used up to 2%. So for a 1 litre jar, I would use 20 gms of salt. 1 litre of water weighs 1kg, so 20 gms is 2%. For a 1 litre jar therefore, put in the vegetable matter, add 20 gms of salt and top up with water and leave in a warm place. It is exactly that simple!

The fermentation

This works best around blood heat. So put the jar in the sun, on a radiator, in an airing cupboard or some other warm place for best results. It will ferment at lower temperatures, but will simply take longer.

Initially the vegetables are likely to have trapped air - leafy material has internal air also, so air bubbles will form for a few hours as this is expelled and as the vegetables get wetted. Gradually the fermentation sets in and, because of the trapped air, it is quite difficult to tell when this starts. However the liquor will gradually change colour, maybe go slightly milky and certain vegetables may smell completely putrid during the fermentation - try kimcheed onion rings!

But eventually, the bubbles will cease and the kimchee is ready. Natural sugars, present in all vegetable matter, have been transformed by bacterial ferment into lactic acid. The result is a distinctive 'pickled' vegetable, but the flavour is quite unlike vinegar pickles. Lactic acid is a preservative, as is acetic acid, and the ferment inhibits other decay processes. Several recipes recommend refrigerating the finished product but this appears unnecessary and the experiments I have done indicate that the product simply matures with additional keeping. But it's far too tasty to have much keeping ability!

Food for free

Since the only ingredients are vegetables, salt and water, it is a process which compliments admirably wild food gathering.


The process seems to be best with leaf/stalk vegetables and seems particularly suited to the cabbage family. In fact, the only vegetable which is treated in a similar ferment if the wet is cabbage - for this is the same fermentation process used to make sauerkraut!

These are some of the vegetables I have successfully kimcheed. The most successful bit appear to me to be the leaf stalks, so I expect good results with root vegetables also - in Korea, radishes (of the chinese variety - which are large - are used. But I have only just started experimenting. The process is so cheap that should something be unpalatable, little is lost!

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Page first published 20th May, 2001.
Last modified: Sat, 02 Dec 2017 16:09:19 GMT
Written by and © Richard Torrens