Combine a hectic work schedule with an insane social life and you find yourself staring wide-eyed at the calendar wondering where April and most of May have gone. I’m thankful for both, but various things seem to have gathered momentum at the same time and it has taken considerable effort to stay ahead of it all rather than simply hang on desperately in fear of falling off. The time I’ve gotten to spend in my kitchen has been minimal which is such a shame, considering that this is the most enthusiastic time of year, produce-wise.
For us, there has been a lot of quick food or take-out on those few days we’ve been able to sink into the pleasures of staying in (very under-rated in my opinion). There have been a few quick tomato and cheese or peanut butter sandwiches while the bread lasted, or boiled eggs and toast (easily my favourite meal-in-a-hurry) while the eggs lasted. This one heavenly indulgent night was when I didn’t have anywhere to be and could make this potato vegetable which we ate with some rotis. That is the sad state of affairs these past weeks. Amey and I haven’t been getting in early enough to spend decent quality time at the markets. It is times like this when an intelligently stocked pantry can save your life.
Living in a small apartment means that you catch on pretty quick to what is cake and what is icing, metaphorically speaking. You learn very quickly that a hoarding complex or an over-sentimental attachment to stuff is a one-way ticket to madness. Everything at our place is based on turnover. So to have something new, you have to get rid of something old. We have achieved phenomenal success in applying this rule to practically everything except books and food ingredients. I’m having a harder time with the pantry then the library really, because in a broad sense, the entire apartment is a library. Thankfully, the same cannot be said of the pantry.
Our small pantry cupboard means that the various bottles and tins in there are engaged in an eternal jigsaw game. I always have long-storage elements like beans, pasta and noodles on hand. Ditto on the rice and dal. No self-respecting Indian would be caught dead without those. There is also the assortment of condiments: chilli sauce, soy, honey, oils, mayonnaise, mustard and dry chutneys. Then there are the ingredients that I buy once in a while, inevitably on a whim. They aren’t entirely non-perishable but have more of a shelf life than a tomato. It is in this category that kimchi falls.
If you are new to the glories of kimchi, it is this wonderful Korean fermented vegetable preparation that is fiery, spicy and tart, what I imagine western pickles on a spice high would taste like. It almost always has cabbage and ginger which are often accompanied by carrots and radish. There is also my favourite ingredient, the chilli, in prodigious, glorious, throat-searing amounts. I can almost never pass up a bottle of kimchi in the stores. I open the jar and inhale the quantities, one piece of vegetable at a time, just like so many potato chips. Amey isn’t a fan of the heat, but loves the sourness of it all. Between the two of us, we can easily put a good dent in any portion of kimchi.
This one evening, I came home craving something warm and comforting. It had been raining all morning and the various muted shades of gray were begging to be chased away by kitchen heat. Veggie-wise, all I could find was garlic and shallots and rummaging through the fridge, some tomatoes, celery hearts and bottle of kimchi. This last one I’d bought some time ago at the Happy Girls stall at the Farmer’s market. The only reason it survived past the day it was bought was because it had gotten shoved to the back of the fridge somehow. All things that pointed in one direction, kimchi fried rice.
This was the first time I tried to make this version of a fried rice. In theory, it is simply stir-fried cold rice mixed with kimchi, but of course I set out to find a way to make it my own. I diced the celery and garlic as fine as I could and then heated them gently in a mixture of vegetable and sesame oil, along with a smidge of butter for good measure. As that mixture sizzled away, I uncapped the potent mixture of fermented veggies. I thought about chopping them into smaller pieces but frankly the celery and garlic itself had been too much chopping for that day, so into the pan the entire bottle went, liquid and all. There was no stale rice so I made up a fresh steamed batch and then laid it out on a tray near the window to cool off before I introduced it to the hot pan. Some soy, a couple of varieties of chilli and what I had was kimchi elevated to a satisfying warm meal.
Kimchi fried rice with crispy shallots
Makes 5 to 6 servings
Rice – 2 cups, uncooked (I used basmati)
Kimchi – about 3 cups of it, home-made or store-bought
Celery – 3 stalks, finely diced
Garlic – 4 cloves, finely chopped
Dried red chillies – 3, broken up
Hunan chilli sauce – 2 tbsps or to taste
Sriracha or red chilli sauce – 2 tbsps or to taste
Soy sauce – 2 tbsps
Dark sesame oil – 1 tbsp
Vegetable oil – 3 tbsps
Eggs – 4
Butter – 2 tsps
Oyster sauce – 1 1/2 tbsp
Distilled vinegar – 2 tsps
Honey – 1 tbsp
Salt to taste
Cilantro for garnish (optional)
– If using fresh rice, cook it and then spread on a large plate to cool off. Move to next step if using old rice.
– Heat the vegetable oil and butter in a deep pan or wok on medium high. Add the chillies, chopped celery and garlic and cook until softened.
– Add the kimchi and sauté for a few minutes. Add the chilli sauces, soy and oyster sauce, sesame oil and vinegar and stir a bit.
– Add the rice and toss with the veggies until the whiteness of the rice has disappeared. Add the honey and mix. Turn up the heat to give the rice some crunch.
– Beat the eggs in a bowl and season with salt. Pour into the rice, then toss the rice quickly. Allow the egg to cook a bit and then pull off the flame/heat source.
– Garnish with cilantro and crispy shallots before serving.
For crispy shallots
Slice up 4 to 5 shallots as thinly as you possibly can and then fry in hot vegetable oil until they brown evenly. Take them out of the hot oil with a spider and place on a paper napkin covered plate to drain and cool.
Why the shallots? The simple reason- I like them. But more importantly – and this why I share it with you – they go really well with the spicy and sour rice. Something about their smoky sweet crunch just works very well here. I suppose you could just as easily use bacon or some good bits of sausage or slivers of roasted chicken instead, but the shallots sure help kick a vegetarian version up a notch.
The honey and oyster sauce helped add some depth to the entire preparation, a sweet and salty earthiness. Still if you don’t like oyster sauce or for a very veggie version, just leave it out. Make sure you start out with a well-fermented kimchi that you like and this should still turn out just fine. Use leeks or scallions instead of celery. Oh, the sky is the limit with how adaptable this dish can be. Also a note about heat – feel free to use searing heat if it is available to you. I have an electric burner so that’s a bit harder for me to come by.
Adjust the chilli level according to your liking. The kimchi I was going with wasn’t as spicy as I would have liked so I threw in chilli sauce with gay abandon, also some red chillies. You might think all this made for some really spicy rice, but it didn’t really. Nothing reduces the potency of chilli like steamed white rice. It all just mellowed out when it was done. Don’t get me wrong. It still packs heat. But I’m not judging by my own standards, but by Amey’s. He has a normal tolerance for chilli, unlike my manic love of it. I served him a portion with a couple of slice of sweet tomato, in trepidation. But I needn’t have worried. It worked out just fine for him. Still if you’re concerned, adjust the hotness to your taste.
Clearly this entire operation was born out of an urgent need to cook something quick, which explains my tossing the eggs in onto the rice and continuing on with the stir fry. If I’d had a bit more patience, I might have fried up or scrambled the eggs and placed them on top of the rice. The way I did it gave the grains of rice a it of an egg coating which I actually liked quite a bit. I think this is how I will continue to do it. You ought to do as you choose. This rice works out great even if all you were to have is some kimchi, rice and soy. The kimchi already has some traditional fried rice ingredients so results are assured.
This has to be one of the best dishes that have come out of my lean kitchen moments in a long time. So good, that the next time I buy kimchi, I will be buying two bottles, one to munch on and one expressly for this rice.