on…Kimchi (김치)

Posted: 01/02/2014 in Asia, Gastronomy, History, Korea
Tags: , , , ,

This is  along overdue post, mainly because the more I read about it, the more I taste it, and the more I try to understand it, the more confused I become. I will try to break it down into smaller sections so as not to confuse myself.

What is it?

Kimchi  is a traditional fermented Korean side dish made from various types of vegetables.  Most of the Kimchi you will find in restaurants in the little dish next to your main meal will be cabbage or radish. You could liken it to the German and east European sauerkraut, which is also pickled cabbage. However, kimchi also comes with a variety of seasonings, the most common being chilli which gives it the notable deep red colour. The mixture of its fermentation and seasoning gives it a characteristic spicy or sour taste. Despite being a side dish, there are many main dishes in which kimchi is used. It is also considered as Korea’s national dish. The English word for kimchi is kimchi. 

What is made from?

According to the Kimchi Field Museum there are 187 varieties which can be made from the following main vegetable ingredients:

Napa cabbage, radish (sliced in various ways), green onion, cucumber, green pepper, sesame leaf, mustard leaf, turnip, gourd, aubergine and so on…The other ingredients used for the fermentation process and flavour are:brine, scallions, spices, ginger, chopped radish, garlic,shrimp sauce, and fish sauce.

 

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Why is it made?

Most civilizations had some processes for fermenting food. The prime reason being for times of shortage. This is especially true in the Korean peninsula which has a particularly harsh winter. The preservation of vegetables in earthenware pots allowed people to consume vegetables for 3 to 4 months over winter. Korea has four distinct seasons and the cultivation of vegetables is too difficult after November. Despite this fact, kimchi has evolved to be eaten at different times of the year. Many different types of kimchi are suited to the four seasons. Before the age of refrigeration kimchi was stored in the giant earthenware pots which you can still see to this day. The same type of pots are also used to make various other types of fermented pastes. Modern Korea has now has kimchi fridges which can separate the rather pungent odours from the rest of the items in your fridge.

When was it first made?

To trace the history of kimchi would involve tracing the history of cabbage. Cabbages travelled from the Indian subcontinent via the south of China to what is now Korea, this happened around 4000 years ago. It’s difficult to say whether kimchi was made at this time, but it is likely that the first agricultural societies were at least storing vegetables. The first mention in written accounts is by a famous writer called Yi, Kyu-bo(1164 – 1241 AD).  In  the History of the Koryeo Dynasty one of his verses includes the line: ‘the leaves of white radish dipped in paste are good to eat during three months in Summer and the salted ones are endurable during Winter.’ Yi, Kyu-bo’s obvious problem was that the Spanish had not yet colonized the Americas. It wasn’t until after the Japanese invasion (1592–1598) that kimchi began to take on its distinctive red colour and spicy taste. Although before this time there may have been other spices added to the dish.

 

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How is it made?

The damaged outer leaves are removed from the cabbages, they are then are cut in half and left to soak overnight in salt.

After soaking they are rinsed and drained.

Garlic and ginger are minced and the red pepper powder is mixed with the other seasoning.

The various vegetables are sliced.

The seasoning mix is stuffed between the layers of cabbage.

The cabbage is then securely wrapped with the outermost leaf and left to ferment.

KimchiStages

Is it healthy?

A quick look at the list of ingredients used for kimchi will no doubt assure you of the health benefits. A serving of kimchi can provide Vitamin C, carotene, vitamin A, thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), calcium, and iron. It is usually considered one of the World’s superfoods, especially after outbreaks of avian flu and Sars. After much speculation and research, immunity to both these diseases, and many others, is increased by kimchi consumption. The magic is said to be in the bacteria from the fermentation process. I’m not sure about the overall health benefits but I can testify personally that my last three occasions without kimchi have been difficult. The main benefits I have seen first hand have been a general speeding up of the metabolism and as a source of fibre. After brief periods spend outside of Korea I have struggled with digestion. I don’t even eat kimchi everyday but I think my system now needs it.

Where can I get it?

I have seen it in most Asian supermarkets in the UK, although it is a mass-produced variety. It is also made in China and Japan. The best kimchi is of course from ‘someone’s mum or grandma.’ If you live in Korea there is almost no need to ever buy it because someone you work with will have access to it. Much of the kimchi used in restaurants may be mass-produced in China, but I’m sure any neighbourhood store will be able to get it for you. These days there are many workshops in Korea where you can make your own too.

What do I do with it?

The main use of kimchi is to be eaten with your rice, but this is not the only use! As it is nearly always a side dish you can use it in your ssam wraps with meat, in a big stew like kimchi jjigae, in soup, in a Korean pancake, and my favourite – with fried rice. I have experimented with almost every type of food, especially Western dishes. My personal favourite is a bacon and cheese sandwich with kimchi. You can put the kimchi on a baguette under the grill then melt cheese on top. Another good one is on hot dogs, beef burgers, and inside wraps or burritos. It goes especially well with pork sausages inside lettuce leaves. The only two combinations I cannot get my palette around are kimchi with any type of pasta or pizza, and also with wine. It’s really difficult to appreciate wine after eating any type of kimchi; soju is a much better combination.

KimchijeonFinal note!

Most of the best things in life take a while to enjoy. Most people don’t like their first beer or glass of wine. I never used to like blue cheese. Sushi seems repulsive at first. If you are living in Korea or visiting Korea, I cannot stress enough that you should try to get used to the taste of kimchi. If you do, you will be rewarded with the myriad types and I also believe it will develop your taste by pushing the limits of sourness and spiciness. I have met many young Koreans who don’t enjoy the taste of kimchi, they  prefer instead the bland or sugary tastes of modern fast food. I hope the younger generation and foreigners alike can learn to enjoy one of the World’s greatest foods – kimchi.

Comments
  1. sheilag123 says:

    I promise to try kimchi again when I am in Korea in April!

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