January 16, 2017

Fermented cabbage

by Elijah Gaddis

When we put out the call for NCFood posts on fermentation, we had no idea we’d get two so close together!  But fermentation, the ages-old method of preserving foods, is a hot topic. Yes, it tastes great, but it also deconstructs the confines of the growing season. Thanks to both Elijah Gaddis and Lisa Fieselman for answering the preservation call!  ~ Deborah Miller, Editor, NC Food.

I write this post, like I wrote most things, from my great grandfather’s desk. It’s a secretary actually—a vertically imposing assemblage of solid mahogany, purchased at some point after World War II and exhibiting the neo-colonial aesthetic indicative of post-war prosperity. I never knew my great-grandfather in person, but I’ve had a lifetime of getting to know him through his things. All his furniture, photographs, and other everyday possessions are scattered through the various houses of his descendants all throughout the country. The secretary is a kind of consolation prize. What I really wanted, still want, is his sauerkraut crock.

Grandpa Hoffman was part of a large German-descended family in upstate New York. True to his ancestry, he made sauerkraut in a large, earthen barrel every year. It would sit throughout the winter in his cold, dank, basement, disturbed only when he would go down and drink the juice out of crock. That ritual is one that inspired no small amount of disgust in me as a child. Now, I think it sounds like a pretty great curative. Maybe if I ever get a basement, or even that old crock, I’ll do the same.

So, what does a long-since dead man who in all likelihood never visited North Carolina have to do with our foodways? Well, for starters, the part of the Piedmont where I grew up was dominated by German settlers.  Our centuries-old, German-founded Lutheran churches are some small testament to the area’s past, as are the few older people I know who still harbor sauerkraut recipes (even if they haven’t made it in years). I’m certain there are many people out there who continue to make sauerkraut following their family’s recipe, and many more who have started doing so recently in the craze for local and lacto-fermented.


And of course, there are the many different traditions of fermenting and preserving cabbage that migrated here with people other than the Germans. My favorite, and the one that inspires the following recipe is the Korean version kimchi (which refers to any number of vegetables fermented in the same manner). I make this with regular green cabbage, the kind your farmers’ market will have in abundance come fall. That kind of adaptation—a switch in types of cabbage, a different kind of spicing, a shorter, less sustained fermentation—are all hallmarks of traditional foodways. Rather than being beholden to some idea formulated in the past, traditions grow, change, and cycle back, constantly adapting to new places and new neighbors. In that spirit, I offer the following recipe.


Piedmont Kimchi
(This is an infinitely variable recipe, more a technique than anything. If you make it, use the opportunity to visit two hallmarks of traditional culture—the farmers’ market, and the Asian grocery).

-1 head cabbage, 2-3 lbs. (I use regular round green cabbage—you could use Napa cabbage, pointy head cabbage, collard greens, green onions, etc)
-1/2 lb carrots, cut into rounds or julienned
-2 tablespoons fresh ginger
-2 tablespoons garlic
-2 tablespoons Korean red pepper powder*
-1 bunch scallions (6-7,) roughly chopped
-1/4 cup salt (or less; you’ll get a feel for this as you do it)
-Daikon radish (optional)
-Fish sauce, 5-6 splashes (technically optional but highly recommended—you could also use dried shrimp, dried squid, or even fresh seafood (though I’ve never tried that.)

1.    Cut cabbage into bite size pieces. Combine with other vegetables, salt, and allow to sit for 2 hours.**
2.    Work the cabbage and other vegetables with your hands, battering and squeezing to extract liquid.
3.    Blend your fish sauce, chili powder, garlic, and ginger together in a mortar and pestle or food processor until it reaches a paste-like consistency.
4.    Spread this paste on the battered vegetables, making sure to coat evenly.
5.    Transfer the entire mixture of cabbage and paste to large, sterilized jars. Press down on the mixture and make sure it is covered in liquid. If not, weigh it down with a smaller jar, bowl, or any piece of clean, non-reactive material that will keep it submerged.
6.    Once the vegetables are in the jar and submerged, seal and place in a cool spot away from sunlight. Let this sit for a few days until you can actually see the fermentation process working (you’ll know it when you see it.) Refrigerate and use often.
7.    Fair warning: this recipe will continue to get funkier and funkier as it goes. After a few months, it will have the aftertaste of a nicely-aged blue cheese or miso paste. Yum.
8.    I like to use this in lots of ways: fried with rice and an egg in a skillet, mixed in with sautéed or stewed greens at the very end of cooking, with black beans, rice, and tortillas. It also goes well with grilled meats, homemade pupusas (take that curtido!), or eaten by itself out of the jar when nobody is watching.

*You’ll be able to find this at any Asian grocery. If you haven’t ever been to one, then look around. There are a lot of them out there. You can also add much more of the pepper to the recipe, as I tend to.
**Lots of people make a brine when making kimchi. I haven’t found it necessary but that’s an option here too.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy:
Pepper Preservation: Two Experiments by Laura Fiesleman
Collard Kraut by David Cecelski
Sauerkraut at the Statesville Rotary Farmers’ Market by David Cecelski
Elijah GaddisA folklorist and graduate student in American Studies at the University of North Carolina, Elijah Gaddis lives in Greensboro, NC.

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