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What is kimchi, exactly? A tangy history of the Korean dish

What is kimchi, exactly? A tangy history of the Korean dish

What's the story behind kimchi, Korea's traditional dish? We dive into this fermented vegetable recipe's history and how you can make it yourself

A brief history of kimchi

Kimchi is the Korean name for preserved fermented vegetables. The history of kimchi goes back to at least the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392 AD).

The first documented kimchi was not spicy, nor made with cabbage. Chilli powder was only imported into Korea around 300 years ago, so kimchi before that was white; brined and seasoned with salt.

"The history of kimchi goes back to at least the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392 AD)"

Instead of cabbage, cucumber, aubergine or radish were originally used.

Like most cultures historically, to ensure that food would last through cold seasons, people would salt and ferment their food to preserve it, thus kimchi was created.

What is kimchi made of?

Kimchi in wooden bowlKimchi is made out of fermented vegetables and Korean spices

Traditionally kimchi is made of napa cabbage, which is fermented with spices including salt, jeotgal (salted seafood), red pepper (the Korean favourite is the fiery Cheongyang pepper), green onions, garlic, ginger and leaf mustard.

However, in Korea there are many varieties of kimchi, depending on the season and which seasonal ingredients are used. For example, in spring it’s water parsley and spinach. In summer, it’s perilla leaves and chives. In autumn, it’s green onions and sweet potato vines.

The location in Korea influences the jeotgal that is used. For instance, in central Korea, where seafood is harder to get, people used to use salted red pepper seeds. In the east where people eat fish more, dried intestines and gills of cod with malt powder would be used.

In the southern islands, fresh fish was used when fermenting, then removed to eat alongside it. In areas now part of North Korea, where seafood is not the preference, beef would be used in the fermented kimchi instead of jeotgal.

Although kimchi is now readily available to buy, Koreans still favour making their own.

The health benefits of kimchi

Kimchi is fermented twice and thus is rich in over 200 varieties of healthy lactic acid bacteria, which help prevent high blood pressure and obesity, aids slowing down the ageing process and boosts immunity. It is also high in cancer-fighting phytochemicals.

The vegetables used in this low-calorie side dish are rich in antioxidants, Vitamins A and B and minerals also improve skin elasticity.

"Kimchi is fermented twice and thus is rich in over 200 varieties of healthy lactic acid bacteria"

The chilli element speeds up the metabolism, helping to burn body fat.

Kimchi is also a good source of dietary fibre and beneficial for the digestive system. Roughly one millilitre of the juice from well-ripened kimchi has around 100 million lactic acid bacteria, nearly four times more than the same weight of yoghurt.

How to serve kimchi

Kimchi served as a side dish on riceKimchi can be served as a side dish or mixed in with rice, noodles and dumplings

The beauty of kimchi is you can have it with whatever you fancy, from a dollop in a toasted cheese sandwich to part of a traditional Korean meal.

In Korea, aside from as a side dish with any meal, there are a number of tasty ways it is served, including kimchi dumplings (a dumpling encasing kimchi and minced beef), a rather fatty but tasty pork and kimchi stew, kimchi fried rice, kimchi savoury pancakes with a dipping sauce, spicy kimchi udon noodles and kimchi served with tofu.

Kimchi has been seen dished up by creative chefs alongside pork in tacos, or kimchi grits, or even French fusion style with pigeon and foie gras.

In terms of presentation, usually it comes in a bowl as a side dish, but experimental high-end chefs have also been practising different ways to present it, such as neat little bite-sized kimchi rolls.

Kimchi which has been freshly made is particularly good alongside simply steamed pork—wrap a pork slice around the kimchi and sprinkle on top some fermented shrimp sauce.

Fascinating foodie facts about kimchi

Traditional Korean jars for fermenting kimchiTraditionally, vegetables were fermented in clay pots to make kimchi

Traditionally Koreans get together every autumn for Kimjang to collectively make and share huge quantities of kimchi, making sure every household has enough to last through winter. The ritual runs deeper than creating this cabbage-based fermented food—it is about connecting and sharing with each other.

Kimjang was listed in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013, which wrote, “The collective practice of Kimjang reaffirms Korean identity and is an excellent opportunity for strengthening family cooperation. Kimjang is also an important reminder for many Koreans that human communities need to live in harmony with nature”. 

Historically, people would bury kimjang kimchi in clay pots to store during winter, but nowadays many use special kimchi fridges, the first of which was created in 1995.

"The collective practice of Kimjang reaffirms Korean identity"

There are a few parts of Korea which grow napa cabbage—predominantly it’s along the highlands in Gangwon-do Province. The county Haenam however, in South Jeolla Province, produces 70 per cent of the country’s famous kimchi-appropriate cabbage.

Kimchi is entwined in family heritage with mother-in-laws passing on their recipes to their newly married daughter-in-laws.

Japanese kimuchi is made simply by pickling cabbage without natural fermentation, unlike kimchi, which is first pickled and then fermented, not just once, but twice.

Kimchi is believed to be the world’s only double-fermented vegetable dish. If you haven’t tried it yet, it’s well worth a taste.

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