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A kimchi enthusiast in Woods Hole

Cucumber kimchi
Elspeth Hay
Cucumber kimchi

Hollis North got into kimchi because of a dilemma.

"I was having some problems when I was eating bread, which is sad, considering I’m married to a baker, um and pizzas I couldn’t eat anymore, and I couldn’t drink beer anymore because it made me feel really bloaty, awful. And then someone said you should try sauerkraut," he explained.

Hollis tried it and after a while and it seemed to help. "I thought mm! that’s nice then I thought well why don’t I try making some other things and try and have a little bit every day. So now I’m kind of addicted to, mainly kimchi, I don’t make sauerkraut so much. Sauerkrauts are nice but I want something a little more pungent."

Kimchi is definitely pungent. It’s a traditional fermented Korean dish made with vegetables and it's both sour and spicy. The sour flavor comes from the fact that the vegetables are fermented, and the kick comes from the seasonings.

"So it’s basically broken down into vegetables, brine, and seasoning. Or you could call it the vegetables and the guts, so the guts is what really helps the fermentation. So that’s garlic, chili flakes, and ginger," Hollis said.

Today he's using the guts to make a quick cucumber kimchi. He starts by mixing fresh cucumber sticks with salt.

"So the salt breaks everything down, opens the skin of the vegetables, opens up the pores and then starts I think it’s something like 3 percent brine starts the lacto-acids basically sort of waking up and getting going and they’re of all the micro-organisms, they’re the ones which are like the soldiers so they will start like, 'ok people we’re doing this,' the fermentation process starts, they’re also the ones that stop all the other not so good bacteria."

Traditionally, kimchi was made as a way of preserving vegetables — before refrigeration. The lacto-bacteria Hollis is talking about converts the sugars in the vegetables into lactic acid, and this lowers the pH of the mixture enough to keep it safe for eating. Lacto-bacteria are also incredibly important for digestion — they help break down more complex foods like the breads and grains Hollis was having trouble with. Because the bacteria keep fermenting kimchi even in the refrigerator, every kimchi has a different timeline.

"This one, this cucumber one you should really eat it within a week. Otherwise it starts to get broken down, and becomes way too — you loose the crispiness and it becomes too translucent and not very pleasant, so this one’s a quick one."

Hollis opens his fridge, which now that he’s gotten hooked on kimchi is completely full of carefully labeled crocks and glass jars. He starts pulling out different varieties, all of which have different timelines and ingredients. Kimchi with shrimp is one of them.

"The thing is about kimchi I think we’re not wildly adventurous over here with kimchi, you know in Korea having like fish, oysters, shrimp it’s a foundational layer of kimchi, right so you create this depth, with salted shrimp, fermented anchovy, you can throw oysters in there, fish in there. I’ve had an oyster one, which was kind of crazy but the flavor was amazing it was very Cape like it was like eating kimchi with this sort of really lovely, briney Cape oyster to it."

He keeps looking around in his fridge. "Um what else…oh here. This daikon one, this was I dunno probably, six weeks old. It’s very pokey, it’s delicious. I’m gonna open it, you should smell it."

The smell is intense — rich with chiles, and garlic. I try a forkful and am surprised by how much I like it — the radishes still have a little bit of crunch, but as soon as I bite in, they’re tender and exploding with flavor. This has been Hollis’s favorite part about experimenting with kimchi — introducing friends and neighbors to this food that’s helped his digestion so much and is so tasty.

"You can’t make small batches, so you have to share it. And that sort of creates this great sort of culture around of sharing and bringing people together and so every now and again someone will turn up and there will be a little pot of kimchi on the side and so Donna up the road she comes over with some eggs, she goes back with some kimchi. And we’ve started this sort of great exchange."

In that spirit, Hollis offered to share his recipe for quick cucumber kimchi with me, and in turn with you.

Find the recipe here.

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.