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Kimchi: Cabbage crazy

Funky fermentation never tasted so good. Fräulein Kimchi has made it her mission to introduce Berliners far and wide to the spicy sibling of traditional sauerkraut. And her goods are fresh on the market.

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Photo by Marta Dominguez

Forget sauerkraut! There’s another, spicier way for Berliners to get their fix of fermented cabbage: homemade kimchi.  

For Berlin’s DIY types, the Korean art of kimchi making is already replacing canning as the kitchen project du jour. Jan, a 24-year-old sound artist from Brooklyn, estimates he’s made up to 20 kilos of (vegan) kimchi since moving to Berlin last year. He’s not Korean, but the kimchi he found here was “too expensive, not sour enough, not spicy enough…” He shares his fermented bounty with friends in the city’s fringe music scene and has won over more than a few doubters. Still, “I’m not sure how much of a real future kimchi has in Berlin,” he says. “Spicy foods with a strong taste and smell are only appreciated by a minority here.”

That may be changing, says Korean-American chef Lauren Lee, aka Fräulein Kimchi. “My last cooking class was made up of middle-aged to older Germans. I gave them a bowl of kimchi, and at first they didn’t know what it was, but they said ‘Trotzdem lecker!’ and ate the whole thing up!”

The American daughter of Korean immigrants, Lee moved to Berlin from Los Angeles six years ago to study opera singing. Within her first two months here, she started preparing her own kimchi using a mix of techniques learned from her mother in the Midwest and her aunt in Korea. Before long, she was catering, teaching Korean cooking classes at Goldhahn and Sampson, even donning a dirndl and feeding kimchi to unsuspecting Mauerpark-goers. Fräulein Kimchi was born.

Strictly speaking, kimchi requires only three ingredients: vegetables (usually cabbage, though radish kimchi is also common), salt and time. Everything else is optional. “Originally, it didn’t even have chilli pepper – that was introduced later, from South America,” says Lee. To make her potent, extra-garlicky version, Lee soaks cabbage leaves in salt water for up to four hours, then mixes in a paste made from rice flour, garlic, ginger, fish sauce, grated apple and fire-engine-red Korean chilli powder. After that, naturally occurring probiotic bacteria take over, rendering the kimchi satisfyingly sour within a week or so.

Lee prefers kimchi with pungent Korean fish sauce – or better yet, raw oysters – over the vegan version. But she’s not a stickler for tradition. She kimchi-fies kohlrabi, Rotkohl and watermelon rind, and she’s even created her own Korean-German fusion dishes – kimchi Käsespätzle, anyone?

Last July, she teamed up with Mexican chef Raul Oliver of Chaparro to introduce Berliners to LA-style bulgogi tacos and kimchi quesadillas. The event was an unexpected success, prompting Lee to contemplate opening a food truck. But faced with German safety laws and permit restrictions, she’s decided to focus on her namesake dish. She started selling to the public this month.