Kimchi is an ancient Korean side dish and condiment that is arguably the most important element of Korean cuisine. It has a complex flavor and strong aroma that it gets from its pungent seasonings. The most popular kimchi recipes include salted seafood and chili peppers. If you are cooking Korean food and find yourself out of this crucial item, one of the kimchi substitutes below may provide some of the flavor notes.
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Your best bet: Make your own kimchi
Making kimchi from scratch will call for you to salt, season, and ferment the cabbage. For the classic version, you will need the right kind of cabbage — napa cabbage — and the right seasonings. Kimchi seasonings include pepper flakes, garlic, and ginger along with salted seafood called jeotgal. Raw shrimp can work in place of salted seafood.
You will then coat the whole or shredded cabbage leaves with the seasoning mix and leave them to ferment in the refrigerator. The fermentation time can be as short as two weeks but the longer you let it sit, the more flavorful it will become. The obvious downside of this type of kimchi is the long fermentation time.
There is an alternative in mak kimchi, which is a fast and easy kimchi that can be ready to eat in a couple of days. Some less traditional recipes omit the wait time and can be eaten right away without fermentation.
A decent second choice: Sauerkraut
Because it is a fermented cabbage dish and condiment, sauerkraut is an excellent kimchi substitute. Since sauerkraut is usually mildly seasoned (it can have caraway seeds and salt but not much else), it works best as a substitute for the less-spicy kinds of kimchi. You will want to add a small amount of salt and vinegar for an even closer match, since even mild kimchi will usually be more sour and salty than sauerkraut.
If you want it to replace the hotter ones, add some Korean chili flakes (gochugaru) or chili paste (gochujang) for the mix of heat and umami that you get with authentic kimchi. If you don’t have either Korean chili product, some Thai fish sauce and cayenne pepper may serve a similar purpose. Sauerkraut will be easier to find in countries with European-influenced food cultures and may be less expensive than kimchi.
In a pinch: Pickled jalapeños
There are two common kinds of pickled jalapeños and both share characteristics with kimchi. For starters, they both provide sourness and heat that will work well in many dishes that require kimchi.
The two kinds are fermented Galapagos and vinegar pickled jalapeños. Fermented jalapeños have the most in common with kimchi, since the fermentation method of pickling them involves the same kind of Lactobacillus bacteria responsible for kimchi’s acidity and complex flavor. Vinegar pickled jalapeños are common in many places. If you don’t already have them in your pantry, you might have an easier time finding them compared to fermented jalapeños and kimchi.
What might make either kind of pickled jalapeños less than perfect for replacing kimchi is that pickled jalapeños don’t look much like kimchi. They may also lack the umami that is a crucial part of the kimchi flavor profile.
Green cabbage kimchi — yangbaechu kimchi — can work as a substitute for traditional kimchi. Green cabbage is the more common kind of cabbage in the West — it’s the kind with the round head that traditionally gets shredded for coleslaw.