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If you are familiar with Korean food, the unique flavor of Kimchi will be familiar to you as well. A staple in Korean cooking, Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish that is served with just about every meal. The combination of cool, crunchy cabbage, green onion, cucumber or radish along with the spiciness of the chili and spices and the earthy flavor of ginger and garlic all come together to make a balanced dish like no other. Kimchi is served as a side dish with breakfast, lunch and dinner, but is also the basis of some entrees as well.
Originally developed as a way to preserve the vitamins and minerals in vegetables over the long winter, Kimchi has been one of the most essential pillars of Korean cuisine for centuries. So much so that it is not a stretch to say that it would be unheard of to be served a proper Korean meal at a Korean restaurant or at home without Kimchi. According to one survey, it has been recorded that as much as approximately two thirds of Koreans eat Kimchi at every meal. (1)
Given the nature of its ancient history, the origin of the word Kimchi is not entirely clear. The earliest reference to it is in a Chinese poem written 2,600 – 3,000 years ago. There are two differing theories on the origin of the word. One theory is that it has been derived from the Korean words ji or jimchae, which means “vegetables soaked in salted water.” The other theory is that it came from a Korean pronunciation of the Chinese letter Ham-tse or Kam-tse, which means “pickled vegetables or processed with salted water. (2)
So is it Kimchi or Kimchee? Of course, there is no officially correct way to spell Kimchi in English and it is often spelled Kimchi, Kim Chi or Kimchee, although Kimchi with an “i” is the most common North American spelling. Regardless of how you spell it, it is the same delicious comfort food loved by people all around the world, and for the purpose of this article, we will use the most common spelling of Kimchi.
Originally, Kimchi was made with only salted cabbage. Salt, garlic and fermented fish paste have been staple ingredients in Kimchi since the Koryo period (918 – 1392 AD). It wasn’t until the 18th century when red chilli peppers were introduced to Korea from the west that red chilies became a main ingredient in Kimchi.
The cold winters of Northern Korea and the mountainous areas meant that the only way to get the nutrition required from vegetables during the winter was to preserve them. Thus, brining and pickling foods became the best way to achieve this. Koreans began fermenting radishes, cucumbers, bamboo shoots and cabbage in Kimchi. This was also the birth of soy sauce when they began fermenting soybeans.
If you look at the history of Kimchi through the Goryeo Kingdom (918–1392) and Joseon Period (1392-1897,) you will see the intriguing evolution of how it developed from simple salted radishes to a more varied recipe that is similar to what we are used to today. During the Goryeo Kindom, there were mainly two different kinds of Kimchi – jangajji, which is simply radish slices preserved in soy sauce; and sunmu sogeumjeori, which is a radish preserved in salt. By the Joseon Period, cabbages and other brassicas had been introduced to Korea and they began making Kimchi with what we now know as Chinese cabbage. The Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592 led the way for red chilli peppers to make their way into the Kimchi pots. By the end of the era, Kimchi had the red color that we now know today. (3)
Modern Kimchi is eaten with almost every meal in South Korea. Its strong, pungent and spicy flavor is the perfect accompaniment to blander dishes. While there are numerous varieties and slight variations, the traditional recipe is Chinese cabbage or daikon (a large white radish), red chillies, ginger, garlic and salted fish. It is then left to ferment for at least a month.
Kimchi is more than just a tasty side dish to Koreans. It is an important part of Korean culture – a national symbol, even. Koreans are proud of their traditional Kimchi and go to great lengths to protect it as a traditional Korean dish. In fact, there is currently a legal dispute going on between Korea and Japan to protect Kimchi and its preparation methods. Japan has been marketing a Kimchi-like product that is not fermented and uses cheaper artificial flavorings to make it resemble true Kimchi. The South Korean Government has applied to the Agriculture Organization’s Codex Alimentarius and the World Health Organization to create a standard that any food labeled “Kimchi” must be prepared and fermented using the traditional Korean methods.(4)
Kimchi has a truly unique flavor. For the uninitiated, it is often much too spicy and garlicky, but once you’ve given it a chance, you will quickly begin to love it. The taste is a refreshing combination of briny, spicy, pungent flavorings in a cool, crunchy cabbage base. Kimchi should have an initial sour taste balanced with a nice spicy burn in the mouth. The vegetables should retain their crunchiness through the fermentation process – a mushy Kimchi is not a good one. The spiciness of the peppers, fishy sweetness of the seafood and saltiness should all meld together to form the perfectly balanced flavor that defines Kimchi.
Kimchi is served as a side dish with almost every meal, often along with other side dishes (called Ban-Chan). It can also be used in soups and main dishes as well, such as Kimchi Jjigae or Kimchi Bokumbop. It is the most frequently eaten food in Korea and with its popularity ranging from Korea to its neighboring countries in Northwestern and Southwestern Asia, one study suggests each person is estimated to consume between ten to fifteen kilograms of Kimchi a year.(5)
Winter used to be the traditional time to make Kimchi, in which the traditional, labor intensive, Kimchi-preparing process would begin. During the war in Vietnam, an industrial scale, mass-production of Kimchi was undertaken for the first time by the South Korean government for Korean troops in the battlefields. In modern times, factory-made and mass-marketed Kimchi is increasingly becoming popular and available all year around amid increasing Kimchi demands globally as well as appreciation for the convenience of ready-made Kimchi in modern lifestyles especially among younger Korean generations.
International popularity of Kimchi has increased incredibly over the years. In particular, during the 1988 Olympics, people from all over the world were introduced to this new and unusual dish. The result has been an enormous international interest in the dish. It is now found on grocery shelves all over the world. Kimchi is also becoming popular all over the world due to its high nutritional values and cancer and other disease fighting properties.
Kimchi is now exported internationally and is one of Korea’s main exports at an estimated rate of $85 million per year. (6)
According to a national survey on nutrition, the average Korean adult eats 50-100 g of Kimchi per day in the summertime and 150-200 g per day in the winter. This adds up to 12.5% of their total food consumption! (7)
During the Vietnam war, Kimchi began to be mass-produced in factories for Korean troops. Factory production has been steadily increasing ever since – now for commercial sale. The breakdown of Kimchi sales for 2001 shows 30.7% being produced for institutions, 64.6% to the general public in Korea and 4.7% for export. (7)
With its international popularity increasingly over time, Kimchi is now often times used as a versatile ingredient in fusion with other international dishes or simply as an added twist to some of people’s favorites, such as Kimchi Quesadillas(8) or Grilled Kimchi and Cheese.
In the meantime, with introduction of Western food in Korea over the last few decades, Kimchi is even used as a topping for pizza and burgers as Koreans reinterprets the Western food for its own taste and style. It is fair to say that Kimchi (or Kimchee), the essential stable in Korean food, is now a globally recognized food enjoyed by many around the world.