Delicious Diversity

Crunchy, Tangy and Irresistible: Dive Into The World of Kimchi

Korean kimchi has been around for at least 1500 years, so, unsurprisingly, there are now more than a hundred variations. It is a versatile food offering a delightful dining experience with several health benefits as well. - BY John Jacobs

When you buy kimchi at an international market or order it at a restaurant, did you know you were diving into Korean food culture? The food is so respected and appreciated in Korea that an annual kimchi communal cultural festival (called kimjang) is held each fall. Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish made from salted and fermented vegetables. It was developed thousands of years ago as a way to ferment and store an abundance of vegetables during the winter months when food was scarce. Today, it holds deep cultural significance as a Korean identity and heritage symbol, but there is more to the story. Kimchi has gained popularity worldwide because of its unique flavor and health benefits.

Making Korea’s Tangy Treasure

Fermented kimchi is a traditional Korean dish made from salted and fermented vegetables, mainly cabbage and Korean radishes. Vegetables are cleaned, salted to begin fermentation, and mixed with a seasoning paste. Common seasonings used include chili peppers, garlic, ginger, and scallions. Fish paste or shrimp paste may also be used. The seasonings are the first step in creating Korea’s tangy treasure.

The vegetables mixed with seasonings are tightly packed in an airtight container and left to ferment for days to weeks at room temperature. The mix of seasonings and the length of the fermentation process are the primary influencers of kimchi's characteristic tangy flavor. The fermentation process involves lacto-fermentation, where natural bacteria on the vegetables convert sugars into lactic acid, creating a tangy flavor and preserving the vegetables. Fermented kimchi is known for its distinctive flavor, spicy kick, and crunchy texture.

Something for Everyone

Kimchi is a versatile dish, so there are many variations available today, but Napa Cabbage Kimchi (Baechu Kimchi) is the most popular and common. It is made with Napa Cabbage, chili powder, garlic, ginger, scallions, and other ingredients. The next popular kimchi is Cubed Radish Kimchi (Ggakdugi), made with cubed Korean radish instead of cabbage - but with a similar seasoning to the Napa Cabbage version. There is also stuffed cucumber kimchi (Oi Sobagi), which is just what it sounds like - cucumbers stuffed with a spicy seasoning paste, making a great side dish.

Not everyone can eat spicy foods, so there are also kimchi versions still full of flavor that are mildly or not at all spicy. For example, Radish Water Kimchi (Dongchimi) is made with whole Korean radishes salted and fermented with ginger, garlic, and green onions for the seasoning. White Kimchi (Baek Kimchi) is not spicy either because no chili powder is used. Instead, the cabbage is seasoned with garlic, ginger, salt, and perhaps apple or pear for sweetness. These are not the only variations. If you enjoy a sour flavor, try Young Summer Radish Kimchi (Yeolmu Kimchi) made with young radish greens (Yeolmu) and cabbages, coarse sea salt, red chili peppers, garlic cloves, ginger, salted shrimp, fish sauce, sugar, and chili pepper flakes. Bachelor Radish Kimchi (Chonggak Kimchi) is for those who like crunchy foods. The chonggak mu radishes are small and slender and retain their crunchiness even after fermentation. The greens are left intact, and the fermented “ponytail radishes” are served whole.

Spice Up Your Health with Kimchi Power

Kimchi is not only a staple of Korean cuisine and a popular global food. It is also valued for its probiotic properties and health benefits, due to the presence of beneficial bacteria. Clinical studies have found that probiotic lactic acid bacteria (good bacteria) is the dominant bacteria in kimchi, and other (not so good) bacteria are suppressed during the salting and fermentation process. Now, kimchi is considered a vegetable probiotic food that delivers benefits similar to yogurt. Probiotics help maintain healthy digestion. They may also help reduce inflammation in the digestive system and symptoms of gastrointestinal disorders such as IBS. Probiotics have also been shown to improve the immune system, reduce cholesterol levels, and support a healthier cardiovascular system. They may also relieve chronic inflammation, which causes issues like cardiovascular disease.

These benefits are in addition to the nutrients of kimchi. The nutrient-dense food contains minerals such as calcium and magnesium, and vitamins that include B6 and K. Kimchi is high in choline, which supports healthy metabolism and plays a role in producing acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter for brain and nervous system functions affecting mood, memory, and muscle control.

Kimchi for Every Flavor Preference

Fermenting vegetables such as those used in kimchi were first mentioned 1500 years ago in the Dongguk Lee Sangguk Collection, compiled in 1241 by Yi Gyubo during the Goryeo period. It says, "Dried radishes are suitable for summer, and salted radishes become side dishes in winter." Radishes were apparently used for centuries before cabbage was used as an ingredient.

Through the centuries, Koreans have developed their favorite kimchi versions. There are more than 100 types of kimchi made today. You will find eggplant kimchi, soy sauce kimchi, white kimchi, sweet potato kimchi, pumpkin pickle kimchi, and the list goes on. There are general regional kimchi variations in Korea. The two main differences between kimchi types from province-to-province are the amount of fish juice and chili powder used. For example, the Kyongsang Province likes thick kimchi with hot chili, garlic, and added fish juice. The Cholla Province in the south also makes hot and salty kimchi with fish juice, while the Choongchong Province does not always use fish juice and makes a milder tasting kimchi. Kimchi in the northern regions is not as salty, because less salt is needed in colder climates to prevent spoilage.

Honoring Community While Enjoying the Flavor

Try a new variety for fun next time you see kimchi on a store shelf or a menu. Red-colored kimchi made with cabbage is the most recognizable, but look closer; you will likely find other kimchi options. This enduring food is delicious and can be used in many ways. Though it is eaten by itself, kimchi can add flavor and excitement to a bed of rice, stews, pasta sauces, scrambled eggs, and anything else imaginable. Kimchi may be a culturally rich food, but it is a fun food, too. If you want to truly enjoy kimchi the way it was meant to be enjoyed, share it with friends and family. Kimchi’s culture is based on community, so sharing it makes it taste even better.