I learned a lot from making kimchi – about fermented shrimp, and about myself

Like all bad ideas, this enterprise started with me thinking: “I bet I could make this myself.” It was kimchi. Everyone really likes it: one kid likes it in a pancake, another likes it in a butter curry, a third likes it with falafel, which he calls “fusion” just to troll me. I like it when I have a hangover; Mr Z likes it on everything; my friend likes it but has rheumatoid arthritis and doesn’t live anywhere near a Korean supermarket. The logic seemed to me almost inexorable: if everyone likes this thing, I bet I could make it myself.

So, newsflash everyone: your average kimchi is not vegetarian. It has a load of fish sauce in it, which yes, you can substitute with vegan fish sauce, except there is also fermented shrimp, and it really can’t be overstated how not-vegetarian that is. There is a point in the fermentation lifecycle of a shrimp that it goes beyond even crustacea – in stench and intensity, it’s basically reindeer. It’s impossible to know what to do with this information: do I assume that the shop-bought stuff is veggie, which is fair, as I cannot read the ingredients (too small, also in Korean)? Do I cut the vegetarians out of my homemade experiment, or just pretend to forget there is shrimp in it, which will take some doing, given that my hands, my face and all my clothes still smell very strongly of the controlled rotting of something that was once alive?

Related: How to make kimchi – recipe | Felicity Cloake's masterclass

I’m now living full-time in my own personal sunk-cost fallacy. I have enough green plum syrup to make another nine gallons of kimchi, but for that I’m going to need more shrimp. I own the hardware (big jars) to start preserving everything, but only if the process is fermentation, as they are not airtight. If I take the route of being truthful about the shrimp, 40% of the planned recipients of the kimchi will not eat it. It’s a white-knuckle ride even finding out whether it’ll work, or if the cabbage takes the path of uncontrolled rotting instead. That is a lot worse than a waste; that’s a disaster you have to literally bury, as I know from the time I tried to make lockdown sauerkraut.

The wisdom I have to impart here is that just because you like a thing, it doesn’t mean you have to perform it yourself. Just buy it in a shop, where legit vegetarian variants are easily sourced. Stay in the audience, it’s peaceful there.

  • Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist