By Jen Kim, Conservator
So grateful am I for my colleague Christina Lehua Hummel-Colla’s post on the AAPI experience and comfort food, that I am chiming in with my family’s own style of kimchi fried rice. It’s a very basic version of the dish that’s great for using up leftovers. In fact, it’s better with leftovers. Like Christina, I don’t have a formal recipe, and no measurements, but hopefully this description can impart some sense of how I make it.
I always use older kimchi (there are many types but I’m referring to the bright red stuff with napa cabbage and secret shrimp). I firmly believe that properly prepared and fermented kimchi never truly expires if stored properly, it only becomes more powerful. But sometimes it becomes so powerful, that I don’t really want to eat it as a side. That’s actually when it’s perfect for using as an ingredient in other dishes. And since throwing out kimchi is against the law (in my house), when the kimchi in my fridge develops an all-seeing eye, it gets turned into stew or fried rice.
I generally use leftover rice. Truly rice that’s been in the fridge for a day works better than freshly made rice. Then I find some leftover meat. Leftover bulgogi is my favorite to use, but if I don’t have that, I have also used thinly cut Spam. (Whatever meat you’re using should already be seasoned, cooked, and cut into bite size pieces.) I’ve used extra firm tofu before too, but I’ll pre-fry the tofu, so it’s not too watery. I grab an egg, and some butter. (Yes, I said butter. Don’t ask questions, this totally works.) I’ll also use a little soy sauce (unless I’m using spam, which like me is salty enough on its own), and a little sesame seed oil will be nice too. I’ll use some ground sesame seeds if I feel like it. Not essential, but nice.
I cut up the kimchi into small bits, saving that red juice at the bottom of the kimchi jar for use later in the cooking. I heat up a large pan on medium-ish heat, and heat up the kimchi on its own, while pushing it around with a spatula. This mellows out its potency and shifts the balance of power into my favor. I heat it for a minute or two. I add the meat or tofu and let that heat up for a minute or two, mixing it in with the kimchi and pushing them both around.
Then I add the cold rice, pour in some of the red juice from the bottom of the kimchi jar, and start folding that all together. I may have turned the heat down at that point. I add the egg and start to mix that into everything. I stand there and keep mixing over low-medium heat. When the egg seems well mixed in and cooked, I might start nibbling at it to see how it’s going.
As I nibble I decide if I want to pour more of the red juice in, and perhaps add some sesame seed oil and a little soy sauce. Then I add the butter, mix that in and keep cooking it over medium-low heat while nibbling, deciding if I like how it’s tasting. I probably stop after a couple minutes because it starts to taste right. I might sprinkle some sesame seeds on it at that point. And it’s ready to eat. I eat.
I don’t usually see kimchi fried rice like this in more formal Korean restaurants, but some version of it often pops up in drinking establishments in K-town. I highly recommend eating a large bowl of it if you are drinking soju as another firm belief of mine is that it prevents hangovers. It’s really an all-around champion of a dish.