What Is Kimchi?

If you're a fan of Korean food, you've probably heard of kimchi, but what exactly is it? The word itself roughly translates to "salting vegetables." Kimchi is a staple side dish in Korean cuisine that consists of fermented vegetables. The most common vegetables you'll find in kimchi are cabbage and radishes. Salt, garlic, ginger, peppers, and chili powder are also common kimchi ingredients, which give the dish a sour, tangy, and sometimes spicy flavor.

History

Though it may seem like kimchi has only recently become a trendy food in the United States over the last few years, it's been around for centuries. As the national food of both North and South Korea, historians trace back the origins of the dish all the way back to 37 BCE-7CE. One major difference between kimchi back then and now is the use of chili peppers. It is believed that Koreans didn't start adding chili powder to their kimchi until the 1600s when the Portuguese introduced chili peppers to Korea for trading.

The 1988 Olympics in Seoul marked one of the first times kimchi was introduced to westerners. Organizers of the Summer Games were nervous that athletes and spectators would be turned off by how popular the dish is (not to mention it's pungent odor). However, kimchi became a hit with visitors and has since slowly became a favorite amongst foodies all over the globe.

Fun Facts About Kimchi

  • Koreans don’t mess around with their kimchi consumption. It’s said that the average Korean person consumes roughly 48 pounds (22 kg) of kimchi per year. Specialty kimchi refrigerators have also been invented to keep your favorite fermented cabbage at the perfect temperature and give it a longer shelf life.
  • Kimchi is an out of this world snack. Yi So-yeon became the first Korean to fly in space and took some kimchi with her on her expedition. Not only did she bring it because it was a beloved snack, but the astronauts also experimented with it to find out if they could kill off the bacteria in the food without ruining the taste and smell.
  • In 2010, there was a Kimchi crisis in South Korea. The country experienced a shortage in napa cabbage, kimchi's main ingredient, as a result of of harshly cold spring and extremely hot summer. Shoppers in Seoul woke up at in the wee hours of the morning to rush to grocery stores to buy cabbage at up to $14 a head just to get their kimchi fix.
  • Kimchi juice is a thing that exists! The beverage was originally created for Americans who wanted to try the taste of kimchi but are sensitive to spice, however, it became a huge hit and consistently sold out when it was released in 2017.
  • Instead of saying "cheese" while taking photos, Koreans say "kimchi!"
  • There is a kimchi war going on between South Korea and China! Korea's western neighbors have infiltrated the international kimchi market (currently producing 98% of Korea's kimchi supply) and they are not happy about it. Some Korean's have vowed to not eat Chinese kimchi, despite the fact that it's cheaper at the market. To add insult to injury, China also banned imported kimchi from Korea.
Person eating kimchi with chopsticks

Types of Kimchi

There are officially over 200 different variations of kimchi, which is pretty insane! Originally, kimchi only had two ingredients: salt and cabbage. However, people started adding in more ingredients over time, like fish paste, garlic, and other vegetables like radishes. Here's a few more common types of kimchi you may come across in your exploration of Korean cuisine:

Whole Cabbage Kimchi

Whole cabbage kimchi is probably the most common type of kimchi you'll find. For this version, cabbage is trimmed, sliced into four pieces, and then brined. The finished product will have big chunks of cabbage. Perhaps one of the reasons why whole cabbage kimchi is so popular is because it has much milder flavor than other kimchi variants.

Kkakdugi Kimchi

Kkakdugi kimchi is another common type, but instead of cabbage, it's made of out of white radish cubes. This version is also topped off with fine red chili powder. Don't let the red chili powder intimidate you though; kkakdugi kimchi is still fairly mild.

Green Water Kimchi

Green water kimchi, aka Yeolmu-kimchi, is a lot like kkakdugi kimchi, except it is made with both green and red chili peppers. It also a bit spicier.

Ponytail Kimchi

Ponytail kimchi, or Chonggak kimchi, is the spiciest kimchi of them all. It's made with whole radishes, ginger, garlic, and spicy red pepper powder.

Different types of kimchi in jars

Health Benefits Of Kimchi

Even if you don't eat Korean food very often, there are plenty of reasons why you should add kimchi to your diet. First of all, kimchi is a probiotic, so it can aid gut health and help with digestion. Kimchi contains way more healthy bacteria than yogurt, making it good probiotic source for people who are lactose intolerant. It can also help stop and prevent yeast infections. Plus the fermentation process allows ingredients like garlic, chili powder, and ginger to provide anti-cancer and anti-obesity properties, cholesterol reduction, brain health promotion, immune promotion, and skin health promotion. Kimchi is also full of antioxidants and vitamins A, B, and C, which can help prevent heart disease and diabetes.

No wonder Health Magazine named kimchi one of the "World's Healthiest Foods!"

How To Make Kimchi

Making kimchi requires some patience - the process can take a couple of weeks - but the final product is so worth it. This simple recipe is a good place to start if you're making kimchi for the first time:

  1. The first thing you'll need to do is make a kimchi paste, which is made of ginger, sugar, garlic, Korean red pepper flakes, seafood flavoring, and whatever else you may want to add.
  2. After the paste is made, you'll add it to mixture of chopped cabbage, radishes, and scallions.
  3. Once everything is mixed together, pack your kimchi into a mason jar and seal it tightly.
  4. Leave the jar sitting at room temperature for a few days, then move to the refrigerator until you're ready to eat it. It's important to note that your kimchi's flavor will get stronger the longer it sits.
Chef preparing kimchi

What Foods Should I Eat It With?

In Korea, kimchi is an extremely versatile food. It can be served as a side dish with rice, noodles, and soup or it can be served as a main dish. Kimchi is also commonly served in stews with a variety of meat and vegetables. However, you don't have to feel so limited to eating kimchi with Korean food. If you're a more daring foodie, perhaps you'll like kimchi on your next plate of nachos or in a grilled cheese. Here's some of our favorite recipes:

The sky's the limit when it comes to kimchi!

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