With the holidays coming up, dinner party season is in full swing, but between all the roasts and toasts, I like cooking simple, comforting meals at home. Kimchi fried rice fits the bill, and it’s a perfect example of the kind of high-flavor, low-effort dishes that I like to make around this time of year.
Kimchi Fried Rice (볶음밥 – Kimchi Bokkeumbap), is a fried rice dish made by stir-frying Kimchi and rice together with some seasonings. It’s a classic Korean comfort food that’s made in households across the country to use up leftover rice and overripe Kimchi.
If you’ve ever been to a Korean market, you know there are dozens of different types of Kimchi, but this dish works best with Baechu-kimchi (배추김치), which is the kind made with napa cabbage. You can get my kimchi recipe here.
As with a good kimchi jjigae, the secret to good Kimchi fried rice is to use mature Kimchi along with its juices. As it matures, Kimchi undergoes lactic acid fermentation, which converts the sugars in the cabbage into lactic acid. This not only makes the Kimchi taste sour, but it also increases the amount of glutamic acids (the compounds that create the taste of umami) as well as the depth of flavor in the Kimchi.
If you don’t top it with an egg, Kimchi fried rice can be made plant-based. The one thing you need to watch out for is the Kimchi itself, which can sometimes contain seafood products such as brine shrimp or fish sauce. If you’re buying your Kimchi, be sure to read the label carefully to ensure you end up with vegan-friendly Kimchi.
Like most fried rice, Kimchi Bokkeumbap can be fixed up with other ingredients. Some ideas include adding some meat or fish, chopped up sausage or bacon, or crumbled firm tofu. I often improvise based on the leftovers I need to use up in the fridge, but to be honest, I like this basic version with an egg on top the most.
The ingredients for this dish are about as simple as it gets, but because Kimchi is loaded with flavor, it doesn’t need much else. The trick to making a fantastic Kimchi Bokkeumbap is all in the technique, which I’m going to outline below.
Before you even start prepping, the first thing you want to do is squeeze the juices out of your Kimchi and measure them separately. It may seem a bit superfluous to squeeze out the juices of the Kimchi only to add them back in later, but I have two good reasons for doing this. The first is that we want to further deepen the flavors of the Kimchi by caramelizing it in a frying pan. When Kimchi is sopping wet, you won’t be able to reach the heat that you need to trigger Maillard browning. The second reason is that the amount of liquid in Kimchi is a bit unpredictable, and by measuring it out separately, we get just enough juice to flavor the rice without making it soggy.
The second trick is to drizzle some toasted sesame oil onto the rice and coat each grain with it before you throw it into the pan. This not only imparts the nutty flavor of the oil into the rice, but it also prevents the rice from clumping up and sticking together.
To make the fried rice, I always start by sauteing the squeezed Kimchi until it’s well browned (think of it like onions, or garlic). Then the rice goes in and gets heated through before the sauce goes over the rice.
Because the sauce is a large amount of liquid relative to the rice, it’s important to continue tossing and stir-frying the rice until all of the liquid has evaporated. This includes the liquid that’s been absorbed by the rice. You can tell when the rice is ready when it fluffs up and stops being sticky.
I also like to give the rice some time in the pan undisturbed, which causes the rice to brown, giving it a wonderful toasty flavor (like a good socarrat on the bottom of a good paella).
I’m one of those guys that believe the molten yolk of a sunny-side-up egg will make just about anything taste better, and it’s especially true when you’re talking about a plate of spicy umami-laden rice. If you’re not a fan, you can scramble the egg into the browned Kimchi, before you add the rice, or just leave it out altogether.
Before you measure out the kimchi, squeeze the juice out of it into a liquid measuring cup, this liquid is the "kimchi juice."
Whisk the kimchi juice, gochujang and soy sauce together until the gochujang is completely dissolved.
Drizzle the sesame oil over the rice and use your hands to mix it, so each grain of rice is coated with oil, and there are big clumps.
Put the vegetable oil in a frying pan and heat over medium-high heat until hot. Add the chopped kimchi and stir-fry until the kimchi is starting to brown and is very fragrant.
Add the rice and stir-fry with a silicon spatula, pressing down on any clumps until the rice is uniform in color.
Pour the kimchi juice mixture over the rice, and turn up the heat to high. Stir-fry, tossing the rice occasionally until the rice starts to brown and doesn't stick together quite as much.
Since kimchi varies in saltiness, taste the kimchi bokkeumbap and season with more soy sauce if needed.
When the fried rice is done, add the scallions and then plate. Top each serving with a sunny-side-up egg.