The Art of Mukeunji
I went to Seoul for the first time a few weeks ago. It’s quite the place, more urban and modern than I had expected. Despite the skyscrapers, the malls, the western architecture, you still can find these pockets of tradition. In these narrow alleyways, tucked away from the bustling highways, I was introduced to one of the most amazing, flavorful experiences I’ve had in Korea.
Mukeunji, aged and fermented kimchi, was one of those bites that transport you into the heart of Korea. You get a taste of the age of the kimchi, the terroir from when it was harvested, and most importantly the hands that made it. This version of mukeunji was made with Korean cabbage, slightly different from the Napa variety I am familiar with.
It was served in a stew with short ribs, carrots, and daikon. The deep flavors of the kimchi seeped into the soft, supple meat, the acid and spice cutting through the unctuous, rich fat. The most amazing part, and we’re talking eyes rolling back into your head and uncontrollable guttural sounds coming out of your mouth, was the soup. Full of richness and depth you can’t find with ordinary kimchi, the soup tasted of subtle complexity, the normal sharpness of the kimchi muted so the subtle umami notes could shine.
Kimchi is one of a type of banchan, side dishes which accompany almost every meal in Korea. The most familiar of these is made with cabbage, but kimchi can be made with a variety of produce. I’ve never been the biggest fan of kimchi - the ones I’ve had have been too sour for my palate, with no real depth of flavor. Mukeunji is different though. Typically aged for a year or longer, mukeunji takes on a different form. It has a real depth of flavor and subtle complexity that's not over-masked by the sharp sourness nor lingering spice. It’s the perfect accompaniment to fatty meats and a great flavoring to stews and braises. It adds an incredibly, almost buttery richness to a dish.
With cabbage kimchi, the cabbage is cut into halves or quarters and the leaves are painstakingly salted and let to sit. This not only draws out moisture but creates a salt-rich environment where bad bacteria cannot grow well. Seasoned with salted shrimp and anchovy sauce to add umami, gochugaru (Korean red pepper powder), and aromatics like garlic and scallions, the vegetable is left to essentially rot and ferment.
Historically, pre-refrigeration, kimchi was stored in earthenware jars and buried underground. Nowadays, kimchi is stored in containers in designated kimchi refrigerators. Some kimchi is meant to be eaten a few weeks after making it, while others are reserved for much later on. The fermentation process creates lactic and acetic acid from the natural sugars of the cabbage, both attributing to the sourness and pungency of the dish.
Fermentation also creates effervescence, which gives kimchi its unique texture. The longer it’s left to ferment, the stronger and more pungent it becomes. As the cabbage sits and ferments, deep rich flavors begin to develop. The umami notes from the anchovy sauce and salted shrimp begin to intertwine with the cabbage’s natural sweetness. The sharp astringency mellows out a bit and complexity and depth of flavor build. This type of kimchi is said to be best to cook with, as the strong aged flavors penetrate into the core of the dish.
Fermentation essentially creates a microbiome within the kimchi. Bacteria grow and spread, eating the sugars from the plant and generating lactic acid and acetic acid. This process generates new flavors and is largely affected by heat and time. The higher the temperature at which you ferment, the faster the process will be. The longer you ferment, the more bacteria will grow and the more the flavors will deepen. Because of this, kimchi actually has probiotic effects, much like that of yogurt. Kimchi houses good bacteria that keep your gut healthy and help fight against cancer, obesity, constipation, high cholesterol, and aging. It helps promote skin, immune system, and brain health. It also boasts high levels of Vitamins B and C.
Kimchi is a staple of the Korean diet, and with its global popularity, it’s becoming a staple within the western diet as well, being hidden away in grilled cheeses, burgers, hot dogs, etc. However, kimchi wasn’t always the vibrantly red, spicy side dish we know now. Prior to the Spanish Inquisition, kimchi was made purely with salt and a bit of beef broth. The kimchi was white and more clean and pure tasting. The Spanish brought with them the chili pepper, forever changing the cuisine of Korea.
Kimchi is at the core of Korean culture. There is a “holiday” dedicated to preparing kimchi, Kimjang, in which typically the women in the family would get together and make pounds upon pounds of kimchi to last them the year. It’s a special time, filled with gossip and laughter, where loving hands graciously prepare kimchi in all forms. It’s the only time of year where you can have unfermented, or “fresh”, kimchi, fed to you right from the hands of those who made it, filled with the sensation of sonmat, the taste of hands. It’s a remarkable feeling, one of warmth and comfort, one of vitality and hope. It’s the feeling of family, of being home.
That feeling of sonmat is what made the mukeunji I tasted so special. It’s that feeling of labor and love that went into the creation of the dish, the year or longer it took for it to get to its perfect state. It’s something I was blown away by, something I never tasted or appreciated before. Mukeunji is something harder to come by in the States, but something I’ll always crave and yearn for now.