If we were to talk about Korea’s major cultural exports to the world, two terms will always be included in the answer—K-pop, and Kimchi.
One is a genre of music characterized by glossy covers, catchy singles, and—lately—by immense soft power potential. The other is a simple, sour side dish that can be found in every Korean household, and is quite possibly the best burst of flavours in one’s mouth.
There are numerous popular beliefs around Kimchi—Koreans believe that if one has boiled rice and Kimchi, one has a meal. Another popular belief, most quoted by influential Korean cook and Youtuber Maangchi, is that the “worth of a Korean housewife is decided by the taste of the Kimchi that comes out of her kitchen.”
That may make Kimchi sound like a complex culinary feat to accomplish, but in truth, it only serves to emphasize how important Kimchi is to Korean culture—a quick survey of the most popular dishes in Korea will put this side dish on the top of every list. In fact, in 2003, the Los Angeles Times stated that Koreans consume about 18kg (40lbs) of Kimchi per person, every year.
So, what is Kimchi after all?
While there are more than 200 variations of Kimchi, the most common types are made either of napa cabbage or radish. The vegetables along with various others, such as spring onions, carrots, spinach, ginger, eggplant, and so on, are mixed with salt or soy sauce and spices, and fermented for anything from a few days to a few weeks. The spices used usually include gochujang (hot pepper paste) and gochugaru (hot pepper flakes). Sometimes, depending on the region where the Kimchi is made, seasonings such as scallions, squid, shrimp, anchovies and others may also be used.
How did it become a household ingredient?
Kimchi owes much of its popularity and status in Korean households to the rise of Buddhism in the country. After Buddhism came to Korea in the 4th century, most of the country gave up on the non-vegetarian diet, believing in the sanctity of all life forms.
Since Korean land is not very arable, however, people needed to find a way to keep vegetables fresh for long durations. Experiments found that salt did the trick, especially during winters. Using salt was also somewhat of an added bonus, since the Korean diet is rich in carbohydrates, but lacks sodium.
By the time Buddhism became a minority religion in Korea in the fourteenth century, having been nearly ousted by Confucianism, Koreans had been making Kimchi for so long that despite ushering meat back into their diets, Kimchi—and its preparation—had become an integral part of Korean households. In fact, it had made its home not only in the pits behind people’s homes where they fermented vegetables, but also in ancestral rituals and ceremonies.
The Introduction of Chilli Pepper
While chilli pepper and garlic are a staple in Kimchi today, the earliest forms of Kimchi were devoid of both. Until the seventeenth century, when Portuguese traders bought chili peppers to East Asia, salt was the only preservative used in Kimchi.
With the boom in agricultural technology during the Joseon Era (1392-1910) came flood and droughts, and thus arose the need to preserve food for longer. Chilli, as one would have it, did the trick, while also providing a slightly sour, tangy taste to the dish.
The National Pride
In the NPR series titled “Hidden Kitchens”, producers Davia Nelson and Nikki Selva looked closely at the culinary tapestry of South Korea, and found Kimchi to be embedded in every thread.
“Kimchi is like air in Korea,” San Francisco based chef Hyunjoo Albrecht told them, “It always has to be in the refrigerator in every house, a big batch.”
Until as early as the last century, Koreans used to celebrate Kimjang at the start of winter every year, where families in every village would gather to make thousands of pounds of Kimchi to last them through the season. Youtuber Maangchi, who hails from Yeosu—on the southernmost tip of the Korean peninsula—recalls the Kimjang in her own town from when she was a child: “My mother used to make 200 heads of cabbage in wintertime Kimjang.”
The ritual of Kimjang is so deeply ingrained and revered in the culture of Korea that in 2013, UNESCO included it on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity . Every year, thousands of people gather in different parts of Korea every winter to make tons of Kimchi, which is later donated to people in need.
Come hell or high water, on Earth or in space, Koreans, in fact, have never lost their faith in Kimchi—during the Vietnam War, the South Korean government requested American assistance in ensuring that its troops on the frontline had a constant supply of Kimchi, insisting that it was “vitally important to the morale of the Korean troops.” In fact, when South Korean astronaut Yi So-yeon went to space aboard the Soyuz TMA-12, millions of dollars were spent on research to ensure that she would have Kimchi that could stay fresh in space.
It isn’t just all hype, though: Kimchi has tested nutritional benefits as well. Health Magazine included Kimchi in its list of five healthiest foods in the world, along with olive oil, soy, yogurt, and lentils. One serving of Kimchi provides more than 50% of the daily recommended intake of Vitamin C and carotene, along with Vitamins A, B1, B2, and calcium and iron.
And the best part? You can get from any Asian grocery store all across London. In fact, here’s a tip: try some of the smaller ones—they usually have a separate batch that’s entirely homemade. Or, if you’d like to take on the challenge of making it yourself, here’s Youtuber Maangchi with her traditional Kimchi recipe: