Here’s What Happened When I Tried Fermenting Kimchi

“Do you smell it? That smell. A kind of smelly smell. The smelly smell that smells... smelly.” Mr. Krabs was talking about anchovies, but he might as well have been talking about kimchi. The best way I can describe kimchi is to call it Korean sauerkraut, or fermented Korean coleslaw. Fermentation is a process where sugars are metabolically converted into acids, gases or alcohol.

So why is it that I am even bothering with this foreign and smelly process? Fermentation is an incredible culinary tool. It helps to preserve foods and makes them easier to digest, while also acting as a probiotic for your digestive tract. Virtually every culture in all of human history has incorporated fermentation into its diet. I think it might have to do with the historical lack of refrigerators or something like that. Yogurt, cottage cheese, whey, beer, wine and anything pickled are created by fermentation. I was looking forward to expanding my horizons while pursuing my love for Asian cuisine.

I fermented. It was a disaster. Here’s my story.

Day 1: The innocence
I went to Trader Joe’s to get my goods, and I was really excited to be super scientific chef Nicolle. I sliced up some cabbage, carrots, radishes, green onions, ginger and garlic, and then tossed it all together with salt, fish sauce and shrimp paste. On their own, shrimp paste and fish sauce smell pretty awful, but I added them for their funky seafood flavor. Then I squeezed as hard as I could to release as much juice and water from the veggies. This is a friendly reminder to use gloves because I didn’t, and my hands smelled like sour lady parts for two days. Once everything was thinly sliced or grated, I dumped everything into a tall glass. You want height, not width, because proper fermentation requires your veggies to be constantly submerged in liquid. The kimchi mixture already smelled putrid, so I was not excited for what was to come. I weighed my kimchi down with a drinking glass, set it on the counter and went to bed.

Day 2: Help wanted
It was almost a normal day: The sun was shining, the birds were singing and my upstairs neighbors were stomping around. I woke up, walked out of my room and was instantly hit by the force of what were fermentation by-product smells. I rushed over to the disaster that was my kimchi, while trying to decide if the best way to clear the air would be by opening the windows or setting my apartment on fire. I could actually hear the cabbage bubbling in protest, as all the gases were rising through the slaw. I left for class with a cloud of worry over my head since I wouldn’t be back until late that evening to check on my science project.

Day 3: @#& kimchi?!
If you think I got used to the smell, you’re wrong. It still smelled terrible, but it was finally ready to be placed in the fridge, where it would go on to stink up the closed space rather than my apartment. I decided to sample some kimchi to see how the process was going. I don’t think I can describe how kimchi tastes, but I can say that it was fizzy and spicy. I think I put way too much ginger in it. I decided to let it ferment for a few more days.

Day 6: The eye of the storm
By then, everything that has been stored in my fridge had the slight taste of kimchi to it. I was regretting my decision to ever make kimchi in the first place. I was afraid of opening my fridge because I knew the smell would creep out and stink up my apartment. I knew I had to try the kimchi and see how it was.

~Drum roll please~

I was incredibly underwhelmed. After all of the hard work I put into making kimchi — all of the frustration and sacrifices — I was devastated to find out my kimchi was just mediocre. I think next time — if there is a next time — instead of just winging the ingredients, I’ll look up a real recipe for kimchi and follow it religiously.

I may have bitten off more than I could chew by trying to make kimchi. It was definitely fun experiencing these little disasters every day, but I can’t promise I’ll ever venture to try fermenting again. If you’re feeling brave and you love trying new things, I 100 percent suggest you try your hand at fermenting. Learn from my mistakes, and check out WikiHow's guide to fermentation or Organic Authority for recipe ideas. Maybe start off with something simpler than kimchi.

Photo Credits: Nicolle Buchbinder, kimchiandkogi.com