Kimchi (김치) or gimchi, the essence of Korean culture, is a traditional dish made from lacto-fermented vegetables with spices and herbs. It is the perfect accompaniment to many Korean dishes. It is prepared during traditional kimjang.
What is kimchi?
Kimchi is one of the most iconic dishes in traditional Korean cuisine.
Originally, the term kimchi simply meant “vegetable”, derived from the pinyin Chinese word cài (菜), and “submerged” or “impregnated”, derived from the pinyin Chinese word shěn, therefore literally “submerged vegetable” which, in modern Korean, is said chimché.
In Korean, chim means impregnated and chae means vegetables. The name kimchi was therefore adopted.
Kimchi is one of the staple foods in Korea. They accompany the dishes, which are called banchan. Banchan (반찬) or panch’an, is a Korean side dish, served in small containers. There are many kinds, and usually at least 4 or 5 different ones are served to accompany dishes.
There are many types of kimchi, but the most famous version is napa cabbage kimchi. Different varieties of radishes are also used.
A brine salt with a coarser grain than cooking salt is mainly used for salting kimchi.
In addition to brine salt, commonly used seasonings include gochugaru (chili powder), scallions, garlic, ginger and jeotgal (salted seafood).
Saeu-jeot (salted shrimp) remains the most used everywhere and especially in North Korea. In South Korea, on the other hand, a generous amount of myeolchi-jeot (salted anchovies) and galchi-jeot (salted saberfish) are commonly used.
Jeotgal is often replaced by raw seafood in the cooler regions of the north of the Korean peninsula.
Raw seafood or daegu-agami-jeot (salted cod) is used on the east coast areas.
Scallions, garlic, fish sauce and sugar are traditionally added to flavor kimchi.
What is the origin of kimchi?
Since prehistoric times, man has used salt as a condiment and as a preservative. The ingredients in kimchi naturally ferment through the formation of lactic acid, a process used to preserve vegetables from the dawn of agricultural cultivation.
From its origins as a food preserved with salt, kimchi has gradually evolved into its current form with the introduction of ingredients such as spicy red peppers, salted seafood, meat or other seasonings.
As a result, people in these regions have long prepared and consumed pickled or brined foods that could be easily stored. Indeed, historical data indicates that food in brine became very common in these countries from the 5th to the 7th century.
A Chinese fifth-century agricultural text contains detailed records of various preserved foods, while an 8th-century Japanese wooden tablet, which specifies a list of food items, includes references to pickled cucumber and pickled rice bran.
Food in brine from China crossed the border by land to enter the North Korean kingdom of Goguryeo (37 BC – 668 AD), then moving to the kingdoms of Baekje and Silla (57 BC – 935 AD), before finally entering Japan.
Besides, during the Silla dynasty (from 57 BC to 935 AD), kimchi became very widespread as Buddhism spread throughout the country and promoted a style of vegetarian life.
Considering the elements, it can be deduced that the history of kimchi began, at the latest, during the period of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, from the 1st century BC to the 7th century AD.
In a passage concerning the Eastern peoples of the Chinese historical text Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, it is said that “The inhabitants of Goguryeo had superior technology to make liqueurs, soy sauce and other sauces, and to prepare fruits of sea brine.”
These reports show that the people of Goguryeo already knew that salt, an essential ingredient in kimchi, was necessary for the preservation of food and knew the fermentation process perfectly.
In addition, the historical Korean text The Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms called Samguk sagi (삼국사기), points out that in 683 the population of the kingdom of Silla unified liked to consume alcohol, soy and other sauces, as well as seafood in brine, especially during wedding ceremonies thus confirming the widespread custom of foods preserved in salt.
Among the important historical vestiges that have survived to this day, there is, in the famous Beopjusa temple in Songnisan in South Korea, a stone jar installed in 720, which would be an old container for the storage of kimchi.
The first written mention of kimchi can be found in the historical archives of the Goryeo period (918-1392). In this text, the general guidelines on the label include a list of the types of kimchi that could be part of the food offerings prepared for ancestral rituals.
In the Joseon period (1392-1910), there was a kind of literary revival which led to a proliferation of texts published all over the country containing a detailed overview of developments related to kimchi.
The writer Seo Geo-Jeong (1420-1488) in the first part of the Joseon dynasty was the first to speak in one of his poems of the seasonings used in kimchi.
Kimchi is popular in both North and South Korea.
As an anecdote, during South Korea’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the Korean government urged the United States to guarantee that South Korean soldiers, in desperate need of food, could obtain kimchi on the battlefield.
South Korean President Park Chung-hee told US President Lyndon B. Johnson that kimchi was “essential for the morale of Korean soldiers.”
The different varieties of kimchi
There are around 200 varieties of kimchi. Here are 15 of the most common types found in Korean households:
- Baechu-kimchi (배추 김치), whose recipe is presented here, is based on spicy napa cabbage. Napa cabbage is the most used vegetable for kimchi and has been an essential food in Korean cuisine since the 17th century, when it began to be cultivated on the Korean peninsula.
- Baechu-geotjeori (배추 겉절이): unfermented napa cabbage.
- Bossam-kimchi (보쌈 김치): rolled kimchi.
- Mat-kimchi: daikon radish and napa cabbage cut into slices and squares, seasoned with a large quantity of scallions, garlic, ground red pepper. It is not suitable for long storage, but is prepared and served on the spot.
- Oi-so-bagi: cucumber, scallion, garlic and ground red pepper.
- Dongchimi: a daikon radish kimchi in broth.
- Baek-kimchi (백김치): dancers, without chili powder and not spicy.
- Dongchimi (동치미): watery and not spicy.
- Nabak-kimchi (나 박김치): watery and moderately spicy.
- Chonggak-kimchi (총각 김치): cubes of spicy chonggak radish.
- Kkakdugi (깍두기): diced Korean radish with an intense odor, containing fermented shrimp.
- Oi-sobagi (오이 소박이): cucumber stuffed with seafood and chili paste, popular in spring and summer.
- Pa-kimchi (파김치): spicy green onions.
- Yeolmu-kimchi (열무 김치): variety of Korean radish yeolmu, not necessarily fermented.
- Gat-kimchi (갓김치): Indian bustard.
Kimchi is said to be the balsamic vinegar of the soul. Kimchi does not throw anything. Indeed, during fermentation, it produces anti-aging and anti-carcinogenic substances very useful for the organism, which remain in its water. This liquid produced during fermentation is drunk and is called “balsamic vinegar of the soul”.
Legend has it that a 91-year-old Buddhist monk drank a glass of kimchi brine water every three meals throughout his life and the analysis concluded that he had the health of a thirty year old. When asked what his secret was, he replied, “This is kimchi water, the balsamic vinegar of the soul”, balsamic vinegar being basically considered a balm.
In Korea, late fall and early winter are the times when kimchi is made for the following year.
Kimjang is the traditional process of preparing large quantities of kimchi and is a very important part of Korean culinary culture. It brings together a large number of people, involving family members, friends and neighbors.
This event is an important Korean tradition and its origins are steeped in the past, when it was difficult to find fresh vegetables during the winter. Because of the great notoriety of kimchi in Korean cuisine, they are prepared in large quantities before the cold season.
Kimchi is usually made in late October or early November, and it is a demanding job that involves many people. Family members and neighbors help each other, which makes kimjang a very important event in Korean social life.
Koreans are a very orderly and organized people and most of the time, the tasks are divided equally between the people involved.
Nowadays, families organize kimjang on a smaller scale than in the past but the original spirit is still intact: helping each other and sharing kimchi with friends and relatives.
Since December 5, 2013, the Korean tradition of kimjang is now part of UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
- 6 lb napa cabbage
- ⅓ cup coarse salt
- 2 cups water
- 2 tablespoons sticky rice flour
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar or white sugar
- 1 white radish mu or daikon, cut into matchsticks
- 2 carrots cut into matchsticks
- 8 Chinese chives chopped
- 4 scallions chopped
- 1 bunch Chinese celery minari or leaf celery, chopped
- Seasonings and spices
- 24 cloves garlic minced
- 2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
- 1 medium onion finely chopped
- ½ cup fish sauce
- 4 tablespoons salted fermented shrimp saeujeot, chopped
- 8 oz. gochugaru hot pepper flakes
- Halve the napa cabbage.
- Immerse the 2 halves in a large container filled with water.
- Sprinkle salt between the leaves by lifting each leaf and adding salt to it. Use more salt closer to the stems, where the leaves are thicker.
- Let stand for 2 hours, turning them every 30 minutes so that they are well salted.
- From time to time, pour some of the salt water from the bottom of the container over the top of the cabbage.
- After 2 hours, wash the 2 halves of the cabbage several times under running cold water. Wash thoroughly to remove salt and dirt.
- While washing, divide the halves into quarters.
- Cut the hearts and place them in a colander over a large bowl so that they can drain well.
- Combine water and sticky rice flour in a small saucepan.
- Mix well with a wooden spoon and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes until it starts to bubble.
- Add the sugar and cook for another minute, stirring. Remove from heat and let cool completely.
- Pour this cooled paste into a large bowl. Add the garlic, ginger, onion, fish sauce, fermented salted shrimp and hot pepper flakes. Mix well with the wooden spoon until the mixture turns into a thin paste.
- Add the radish, carrot and green onion, as well as the scallion and the minari. Mix well.
- Spread a little paste on each cabbage leaf. When each leaf is covered with paste on a quarter, wrap it around itself and place it in a glass jar.
- Eat right away or let sit for a few days to ferment.
- The kimchi will begin to ferment a day or two at room temperature, depending on the temperature and humidity of the room.
- The warmer and more humid it is, the faster the kimchi will ferment. Once it starts to ferment, it will smell strong and taste sour, and pressing the top of the kimchi with a spoon will make bubbles appear at the surface.
- Once it has fermented, store it in the refrigerator. This slows down the fermentation process, which will make the kimchi more and more acidic over time.