Is Kimchi Vegan?
Kimchi is a versatile fermented food that offers an array of benefits from gut health to probiotics. However, it’s not without its animal-related ingredients like fish sauce and salted shrimp (saeujeot) that gives it its umami depth.
Thankfully, a few swaps can transform this traditional dish into a vegan culinary masterpiece. Here’s how to make kimchi that’s delicious, healthy and totally plant-based.
Fish sauce is a popular condiment that is used in many cuisines, particularly Southeast Asian ones. It is made by extracting the liquid from salted and fermented anchovies. While it provides umami, it can also be off-putting for some people due to its fishy aroma and high sodium content. Fortunately, there are a number of alternatives that can be used to replace fish sauce in kimchi recipes.
The simplest is to simply use soy sauce, which provides the same flavour and saltiness as fish sauce while being vegan. Worcestershire sauce can also be used, but it has a slightly different tangy flavour profile. It’s best to start with small quantities of these substitutes and adjust as necessary.
Another great option is shrimp paste, which can be found in most Asian supermarkets. It can be a little more expensive than fish sauce, but it is less salty and has a distinct umami flavour. It can be substituted in a 1:1 ratio for fish sauce in kimchi recipes.
Dried mushrooms and onions can also be used as umami enhancers for kimchi recipes. Both have natural glutamate substances that can provide a similar flavour as fish sauce. You can simmer them in water to create a stock that can then be used to season kimchi.
Seaweed is another umami ingredient that can be used to replace fish sauce. It can be soaked in water to mimic the texture and briny taste of fish sauce, or it can be added directly to the recipe. It can also be steamed or sauteed with other ingredients for a savoury umami boost.
There are also commercially available umami sauces that can be used in place of fish sauce. You can find these in well-stocked grocery stores, Korean markets or online retailers. Look for sauces that are labeled as mam nem or nuoc mam and are dark brown in colour.
As with any substitution, you should be sure to taste your kimchi after each addition to ensure it is balanced and delicious. Experiment with different combinations and be sure to add other vegetables and seasonings for a full flavour profile.
Shrimp paste, or kapi in Thai, is a dark purple-brown condiment made by mixing tiny shrimp-like crustaceans with salt and then leaving them to ferment. It’s a pungent, funky ingredient that’s full of umami and adds a deep savory richness to any dish. If you’re following a vegetarian or vegan diet, there are plenty of ways to recreate the flavours and textures of this popular condiment without any seafood. Miso paste, kombu or seaweed powder and even fermented black beans are all great vegan alternatives that will deliver a savoury umami punch to any dish.
You can use any of these ingredients to make kimchi with cabbage, daikon radish, scallions and Korean chili flakes or Gochujang. You can also experiment with different combinations to find your favourite. If you’re looking for a milder version, reduce the amount of Korean chili flakes.
First, prepare the vegetables. Cut the napa cabbage into quarters lengthwise. Then, apply kosher salt to each piece of cabbage (front and back). If you want more flavour in your kimchi, try using coarse sea salt instead of fine table salt.
The next step is to rinse the vegetables thoroughly, but don’t be too careful as this will wash away some of the beneficial bacteria that will help with the fermentation process. After the vegetables are washed, let them dry for a day or two.
Once the vegetables are completely dried, combine the radish and scallions with the shrimp paste in a food processor until it’s fully combined. Taste the mixture and add fish sauce or soy sauce if needed to balance the sourness of the kimchi.
Once the kimchi is ready, store it in the fridge to chill. It will keep for months if stored properly. It’s perfect for soups, stir-frys, buddha bowls or just a quick side dish. It can also be used as a base to create a tangy, fermented dressing for fresh salads. Try mixing it with lime juice and a drizzle of honey to make a simple salad dressing that’s both tangy and sweet. Enjoy!
While the base ingredients of kimchi are vegetarian-friendly, many recipes call for fish sauce or salted shrimp paste to add flavor and boost the umami factor. This is fine if you’re a seafood eater, but not so good for vegans. Some brands do make kimchi without the addition of these animal products, which is a good option.
Soy sauce is another common ingredient in kimchi, but it is not vegan. The soy sauce used in kimchi is usually made from wheat and soybeans, so it contains gluten. However, there are several gluten-free versions of soy sauce on the market, including tamari. You can also replace the fish sauce in a kimchi recipe with red miso paste, which is typically gluten-free.
The fermentation process in kimchi adds bacteria that are beneficial to our gut health, including lactobacillus and leuconostoc. These bacteria support a healthy digestive system and may help prevent yeast infections. Research has shown that some strains of these bacteria may even slow aging.
Making kimchi at home is easy and affordable, and can be made in any number of variations. A few essentials include Napa cabbage, a large glass fermentation jar and a clean kitchen knife. Other ingredients include sweet rice flour (or katakura powder), gochugaru, paprika and kosher salt. You can find these items at Asian markets and online.
Begin by rinsing and chopping the cabbage into small pieces. Place it in a bowl and set aside. Wash the other vegetables and grate or finely chop the ginger, onion, garlic and nashi pear (any variety will work). Place all of the ingredients except for the fish sauce and the saeujeot into a blender. Combine until a paste forms and is smooth.
Pour the mixture over the cabbage and other vegetables. Massage it into the vegetables with your hands to ensure the paste is thoroughly incorporated. Add salt to taste and a dash of sugar to help preserve the kimchi.
Once the kimchi is fully seasoned, it’s ready to ferment. You’ll know it’s finished fermenting when the jar is full of bubbles and has a strong, sour smell. Then it’s ready to store in the refrigerator for up to a year.
In addition to providing the flavor that distinguishes kimchi, sea salt prevents spoilage by suppressing bad bacteria (which are intolerant of salt), and encouraging the growth of beneficial lactic acid bacteria (LABs). It also draws out excess water from vegetables, making them firmer and easier to handle. It is important to use a quality, coarse sea salt—not table salt or iodized salt.
While the traditional version of kimchi uses fish sauce and shrimp paste, many brands offer vegan versions, and it is easy to make at home. Simply replace the fish sauce with red miso paste, soy sauce, or tamari, and add other umami-rich grocery store staples to the mix, such as thinly-sliced daikon radishes, carrots, and/or cucumbers.
A recent study out of Brown University found that kimchi made without seafood products had the same probiotic bacteria as more traditionally made kimchi. The team used high-throughput DNA sequencing to compare bacterial samples from the starting ingredients, as well as environmental samples taken from production tables and sinks at Chi Kitchen, a Pawtucket, R.I.-based maker of both traditional and vegan kimchi.
To make a simple vegan kimchi, start by washing and soaking the Napa cabbage in cold water 3 times. Drain well. Combine the drained cabbage with scallions and leek in a bowl and massage with your hands until coated with the paste mixture. Taste a little bit of the cabbage to see how salty it is; the saltiness will subdue as the kimchi ferments. Then transfer to glass jars or containers, leaving 1 inch at the top for air and gas bubbles. Put a tight-fitting lid on the jars and leave at room temperature out of direct sunlight for 24 hours. Stir kimchi with chopsticks or tongs, and top off the liquid in the jars if needed. After another day, seal the jars and place in the refrigerator. Keep an eye out for liquid pouring over the rim of the jars—this is normal and a sign that your kimchi is fermenting properly. If it does, place a stain-resistant plate underneath the jars to catch the overflow.