Today I’m sharing a North Korean style kimchi that is made with fermented fish, radish, and cooked millet. It is definitely a more funky/sour kimchi than you might be used to, and I absolutely love it!
I first tried sikhae in 2011 when my grandmother came to visit us from Korea. I remember being so confused when she pointed at the kimchi and asked me if I wanted to try some sikhae. I thought she was talking about the Korean rice drink, sikhye. I had never heard of a kimchi called “sikhae” and the more I looked at it, the more questions I had.
I was very intrigued by the presence of fish in the kimchi. I’ve seen oysters in kimchi and I love salted fish (jeotgal), but never seen anything like this. There are also tiny yellow grains in the kimchi that I had never seen before.
Then my grandmother told me it was a North Korean style kimchi and that she made it. At this point I wasn’t aware of my family’s origins yet, and that was the day I learned that my grandparents were originally from North Korea and crossed the border before it actually became a border.
What is sikhae?
Sikhae is salted fish with grains, mostly prepared in North Korea and some eastern regions in South Korea. It is traditionally prepared with gajami (flounder), and usually has a lot more fish in it than radish. It is more of a salted fish dish than a kimchi dish, but I’m using mostly radish in this recipe because it is one of my favorite kinds of kimchi to have in my fridge at all times.
Fermenting seafood is a very common practice in both North and South Korea. It significantly extends the shelf life of seafood while also transforming the taste into something funky, sour, & delicious!
Traditionally, fish is fermented for 2-5 days before adding it to the radish, but my grandmother’s version is much faster and still safe. There are essentially three parts to the fermentation process-
Salting the radish and fish for four hours to draw out moisture and begin preserving it.
Letting the finished product ferment at room temperature for a few days until it has reached the desired sourness.
Further slowly fermenting in the fridge, which is ready to eat within a couple weeks and will last for up to 6 months.
The difference between jeotgal and sikhae
Jeotgal is fermented seafood that is heavily salted and seasoned similarly as kimchi would be. It can be made with squid, octopus, shrimp, clams, oysters, and more. Jeotgal normally does not have any radish added to it, but I have seen some that do.
Sikhae is fermented fish with the addition of grains and radish. The grains were added simply because of the lack of salt available in the North. Cooked grains are a source of carbohydrates for the lactic bacteria acid, and as the fermentation develops, lactic acid increases which lowers PH and prevents spoilage (The Art of Fermentation, Katz 2012).
Ingredients & where to buy
Belt fish- the sikhae that my grandmother makes is called galchi sikhae, which is made with belt fish. The other common kind is gajami sikhae which is made with flounder. The fish is salted and added to the kimchi, giving it a ton of extra umami and funk- the good kind. Always use the freshest fish possible when preparing for raw consumption, even when fermented. I got my belt fish from my local Korean supermarket that has a fresh seafood section.
Korean radish- the kimchi is made with Korean radish and cut into thin strips. No need to peel the skin except for spots with dark blemishes. Some American supermarkets have Korean radishes, but if you can’t find it you’ll have to go to an Asian supermarket.
Korean sea salt- you can use kosher salt if Korean sea salt isn’t available to you, but I recommend buying a bag for this or any kimchi recipe. The kind of salt used in the salting process is called 천일염 (cheon il yeom). You can buy some from Amazon here.
Rice porridge- most kimchi recipes require a rice porridge that acts as the binder. Rice porridge is easy to make- all you need is water and sweet rice flour! Most American supermarkets have sweet rice flour- look for Mochiko. If you can’t find it, you can get it from Amazon here.
Seasoning paste- gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes), garlic, ginger, fish sauce, sugar, msg, and the rice porridge are all mixed together to make our delicious seasoning paste for the fish and radish. Every single one of these ingredients can be found at an Asian supermarket or Amazon.
Cooked millet- there are other grains that are sometimes used for sikhae, but the most common one is millet. It is a tiny yellow grain that when cooked, helps the fermentation process and also adds a bit of texture. Most grocery stores will have millet in the rice section.
Preparing the fish
Belt fish has a silvery skin that can be very fishy, so you need to scrape it off carefully with a knife. Try to get as much as you can off.
Cut them into 1 inch thick pieces using a strong knife like a cleaver- you can see a large bone in the center of the fish above. It will be difficult to cut through with a smaller knife and can also damage it. Be very careful when cutting the fish!
Make you you give the fish a very thorough wash under cold water once they are all cut up. After that just cover the fish in salt and let it ferment at room temperature for 4 hours, the same amount of time for the radish.
After 4 hours, remove any moisture from the fish but do not rinse it. Add it to the radish and the rest of the ingredients to begin the second part of the fermentation process.
Storing & fermentation process
Any time you make kimchi, it is always best to store in an airtight container that has been washed and sanitized before storing anything inside.
After the first day, you will start to see bubbles floating to the surface on the sides. You need to mix the kimchi around so that the sauce is mixed well and evenly distributed. I pretty much flip it over and bring the kimchi that was at the bottom of the container to the top, then push down so there are no air pockets. Repeat this on days 2-3.
When the kimchi has reached your desired level of sourness, you can store it in the refrigerator. Wait two weeks before you eat it for the best results. If you try it before and it seems too fishy or salty, do not panic. That will go away with more fermentation.
North Korean Belt Fish Kimchi – 갈치식해 (Galchi Sikhae)
- 2 1/2 lbs Korean radish
- 6 oz belt fish or flounder
- 3 tbsp Korean sea salt (cheon il yeom)
- 1/3 cup millet
- 1/2 cup water
- 2/3 cup water
- 1 tbsp sweet rice flour
- 5 garlic cloves
- 2 tsp ginger
- 1/3 cup gochugaru
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 2 tbsp fish sauce
- 1/4 tsp msg
- + rice porridge
- Remove the skin from the belt fish by carefully scraping it off with a knife.
- Cut into 1 cm thick pieces using a strong knife like a cleaver. The bones in belt fish are quite thick to cut through. Wash thoroughly under cold water
- Add 1 tablespoon of Korean sea salt and mix well. Cover and let this ferment at room temperature for 4 hours.
- Wash the Korean radish thoroughly and only peel off any dark blemishes. Cut into 1 cm thick rounds, then into strips.
- Add 2 tablespoons of Korean sea salt and mix well. Let this sit for 4 hours, mixing every 30 minutes or so to evenly distribute the drawn out salty water.
- Cook 1/3 cup of millet and 1/2 cup water in a small saucepan for about 15 minutes on medium low heat. Set aside to cool down completely.
- To make the rice porridge, mix 1/2 cup cold water with 1 tbsp sweet rice flour in a small saucepan. Cook over medium low heat, stirring constantly until it bubbles and thickens. Remove from heat and cool completely.
- Mix together all of the seasoning ingredients plus the rice porridge.
- After 4 hours, squeeze out as much water as you can from the radish. They should be very flexible but also still crunchy when you eat it.
- Add the cooked millet and seasoning paste. Mix until fully combined, then store in an airtight container. Press down so there are no air pockets. Set on your kitchen counter for 2-3 days.
- After 1 day, you will start to see bubbles on the sides. That means it is fermenting. Open the container and mix the kimchi around so the sauce is evenly distributed, and press down again. Repeat on days 2-3.
- On days 2-3, check on the kimchi by smelling it. Once it smells sour enough for you, store in the fridge for up to 6 months.
- I recommend waiting two weeks from the point you put the kimchi into the fridge to start eating it. If you eat it early and it seems too fishy/salty to you, don't worry! That will go away with more time/fermentation in the fridge.