An ever-changing dish that emerged out of pure necessity around 4000 years ago, the bridge over troubled waters in snowy, bitterly cold winters that saw no availability of food – kimchi is a sacred, foundational keystone in the Korean cuisine. At its simplest, it is a seasoned and fermented vegetable and seafood dish that can last for years if kept in favourable conditions. However, it is also a legend of its own, having inspired not only songs, poems of adoration but also the World Institute of Kimchi, located in Gwangju, South Korea, dedicated to solely researching the versatile food, and even a Kimchi museum in the capital city, Seoul.
To put that in perspective – think about your favourite food. Now imagine entire museums and a research institute dedicated to only that dish, with white-coated scientists in labs studying its composition. Huge, isn’t it? Tangy, crunchy and packed with probiotics and nutrients – kimchi occupies a special place in the hearts of Koreans worldwide. In addition, of course, their dinner tables – for every mealtime.
As an ode to the fermented dish, tomorrow begins the 28th Gwangju kimchi festival, which will see festival-goers take part in free masterclasses, contests, markets, music and dance on-site from October 29 to 31st and online for 17 days from October 29 to November 14. The President of the Republic of Korea, Moon Jae-in is also set to teach a Kimchi cooking masterclass online for the big event. However, before delving into this day of kimchi-centred festivities, let us look at the food’s significance itself.
A nation’s soul food
“Koreans cannot live without kimchi,” said Yuk Oon Soo, a 61-year-old Korean expat and owner of the Korean Fusion restaurant, The Coffee Mug in Dubai. “If there is no kimchi at my meal, I cannot eat.”
Kimchi is traditionally made from Napa cabbage (Chinese cabbage), Korean red pepper paste, anchovy sauce or kanari, a sand-eel fish sauce, sautéed shrimp amongst other ingredients and then allowed to ferment.
Soo, who hails from Oksu-dong, part of Seoul’s Seongdong District on the banks of the wide Han river, recalls the traditional yearly process of kimchi-making (gimjang) during the winter: “In my childhood, I remember – my mother would make 150 pogi (cabbage heads) of kimchi. We were very poor at the time, and there was nothing to eat except what we would get from gimjang so usually after we eat kimchi during breakfast, lunch, dinner, we would even have it as a snack.” Making the kimchi would take large amounts of water to wash the vegetables and utensils thoroughly before fermentation, and – as their house did not have running water then - Soo, along with his five siblings, would be assigned the task of lugging buckets of water for gimjang.
In my childhood, I remember – my mother would make 150 pogi (cabbage heads) of kimchi. We were very poor at the time, and there was nothing to eat except what we would get from gimjang so usually after we eat kimchi during breakfast, lunch, dinner, we would even have it as a snack.
His mother would then pack the seasoned Napa cabbage into hangari, or traditional earthenware pots that have historically stored kimchi, buried neck-deep in mounds of snow in Korean winters. She would leave the jars in the house, opening them to dish them out for every mealtime. Soo said, “Now no one uses hangari in Korea; many people use kimchi refrigerators. Now, the world has become developed.”
Gimjang or the traditional process of kimchi-making nationwide starts this month – during the tenth moon of the year, as Korea prepares for wintertime. It sees families, neighbours and friends come together to salt, cure and prepare large amounts of kimchi to last them through the next six months. The cultural activity is inscribed on the UN Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity as an essential tradition that reaffirms Korean cultural identity and strengthens relationships.
“It is like a festival,” Younglan Shin, another previous Seoul-dweller and Korean expat in the UAE, told Gulf News in an interview.
However, do not be fooled – behind this moment of harmonious kimchi-making across the nation taking place now, are meticulous seasonal cycles of preparation. Shrimp, anchovy and other seafood are fished out of the seas of the water-bound nation in spring for early fermentation; sea salt collected during the summer, cabbage grown in western fields of the country and sold in open-air markets - until the moment arrives and friends, neighbours and family come together, gloved, aproned and armed with ingredients, to continue this merry, centuries-old tradition.
Shrimp, anchovy and other seafood are fished out of the seas of the water-bound nation in spring for early fermentation; sea salt collected during the summer, cabbage grown in western fields of the country and sold in open-air markets - until the moment arrives and friends, neighbours and family come together, gloved, aproned and armed with ingredients, to continue this merry, centuries-old tradition.
The cabbage ferments slowly over months, in its mix of red pepper, brine, garlic, myriad vegetables and seafood, sheltered in dark, airtight earthen jars under Korea’s winter soil. Families then unearth the pots or hangari, at intervals during winter to feed the family. Think tangy, juicy mouthfuls of fresh kimchi. Younglan Shin reminisced on her mother’s gimjang traditions in an interview with Gulf News. She said, “There are many kinds of fish sauce in Korea - my mum would use homemade fish sauce, made of shrimp, anchovy, or sand eel. She would make it every two years, or even three years – because it needs time also, to be fermented. “
“My mother’s friends and neighbours would come together on the day to make kimchi. On the day, we enjoyed fresh kimchi with boiled meat, and oyster, which is in season in winter. Next day, my mum would go to another neighbour’s house to make gimjang – they do it in turn day by day. I always miss it.”
While kimchi is made throughout the year, gimjang kimchi is completely different, she explained – tending to be spicier, more seasoned and made with fresh harvest. She said, “During winter, fresh vegetables are harvested, and it is the perfect time to make kimchi.” After gimjang, the freshly made kimchi is then distributed amongst the community – the family, bachelors and seniors living alone to ensure that everyone is fed, happy and supplied with ample kimchi.
In addition to improving gut health due to probiotics and ample fibre, the lactic acid bacteria in kimchi, and other probiotic foods kills pathogenic bacteria that cause food poisoning, and therefore prevent it. It is linked to being anti-cancer and research is currently taking place into the field.
In a 2019 interview with the Korea Herald, Choi Hak-jong, head of research and development at World Kimchi Institute recommended that as kimchi is at its best from the fifth to the 14th day in terms of maximum probiotics that can be an optimal time for consumption.
“In Kyungsan-do, it’s sesame leaf kimchi, In Choonchung-do, it’s eggplant kimchi’
Thus, goes the lyrics of the beloved, cheery ‘Kimchi song’ by Alexander Lee Eusebio, a South Korea based singer, actor and host.
It’s true, the specialty of kimchi lies in its extreme versatility – under this one 6-letter innocuous title that is used in-place of the traditional ‘cheese’ at photo gatherings to initiate toothy smiles (say “kimcheee”), lies hundreds of varieties, made from not only different vegetables, but with varying fermented seafood, levels of salt and ingredients.
“In Korea, around 300 different kinds of kimchi are made,” said Chef Jin Chul Kim, an award-winning chef helming Kojaki, a Korean restaurant opening up at Expo 2020 amongst others
“Normally, the most famous one is cabbage kimchi in Seoul, and also nabak kimchi made by radish and oi kimchi – cucumber kimchi.” Chef Kim likens another popular kimchi in Seoul - Bossam kimchi, with kimchi wrapping fermented fruit and vegetables – to a shawarma-like wrap. He said, “Like shawarma, this is a rolling item.”
He recounted how his own family would make one type after another during the days of gimjang: “One day, we make cabbage kimchi or baechu kimchi. Another day, we make small radish kimchi – it is called chongak kimchi, and the next day we would make cubed radish kimchi – kkakkdugi. Another day, we would make dongchimi (radish water kimchi) which we can have in the winter season and enjoy with juice.
“Some families make kimchi of eggplant, broccoli or cabbage - every kind of kimchi.”
Shin herself prepares young radish, chive, white radish and cucumber kimchi, which she counts her favourite. She said, “My mum would make kimchi with a very special kind of leaf in Korea – it is called leaf mustard or gat. In Korea, there is a special area called Yeosu - the same leaf mustard if grown in Yeosu, it is very different. My mum is usually making gat kimchi – it is very unique “
Moreover, the country’s diverse geography – mountainous territory, cut through by various rivers and surrounded by ocean on three sides has given rise to these differences, along with the seasonal cycles of fresh harvest. Chef Kim said, “Especially in the west side near the west sea, they are near fields and seafood areas – so they mixed together seafood with field produce. Eastside, many of the big mountains are there, so [the focus is] only seafood – and in the South, the weather is hot during the summer season. As people sweat more, they have to eat more salt – so they use more salt and fish sauce, and there is a much more salty taste in the South Area.
“One day, we make cabbage kimchi or baechu kimchi. Another day, we make small radish kimchi – it is called chongak kimchi, and the next day we would make cubed radish kimchi – kkakkdugi. Another day, we would make dongchimi (radish water kimchi) which we can have in the winter season and enjoy with juice."
“In my country, they use all different methods to make kimchi. Some areas – without porridge, some of the areas without fish sauce, only using salt.”
Not to mention the vast array of dishes made using this all-purpose material – stews, pancakes, fried rice, grilled kimchi to accompany barbecue and more. Chef Kim said, “Korean people can eat kimchi fried rice together with kimchi jigae and kimchi jeon.” In addition, when you take into account the hundreds of different types of kimchi… there is no end to the flaming red culinary possibilities.
If you would like to try some of the many kimchi-based recipes – have a go at kimchi jigae, a simmering red stew full of a fermented depth and umami, crispy Kimchi jeon or pancakes, filling kimchi mandu. If you are looking for a unique option for a Korean dinner party, here is a recipe for ribeye steak with kimchi butter from Chef Jin Chul Kim, head chef of Tojaki, which is an upcoming Korean restaurant at Expo 2020.
To make classic cabbage kimchi, find a simple, systematic guide and video here.
Home of delicacies
A city at the heart of Korea’s Gyeonggi province, bordered by a towering mountain range – Gwangju is said to be the birthplace of kimchi. Chef Kim said, “Gwangju is a hub of Korean food. Their kimchi is also famous – but it is very salted usually. It goes by the name of ‘home of delicacies’ and the largest annual kimchi festival in the country takes place here.
It houses Kimchi Town, an interactive museum that guides visitors through the history and culture of kimchi. This includes a Kimchi exhibition and permanent museum exhibition featuring various hangari used historically, a pretty market overhung with baby blue umbrellas, much like a part of UAE’s miracle gardens here – with a direct market to buy the sub-ingredients of kimchi. You can also taste different varieties of the dish and try your hand at making it too. The annual world kimchi festival began in 1994, with Kimchi Town forming the main setting that comes to life again today. Along with the World Institute of Kimchi, which was established in 2010 – these have cemented Gwangju’s place as a veritable kimchi capital in Korea.
Today, festivities will kick off with busking and musical performances celebrating kimchi, the 28th Korea kimchi cooking contest, various exhibitions – and then progress to masterclasses, and even a little chef kimchi class for children to take part in this ancient cultural heritage of Korea from an early age. Visitors can also learn to make Presidential award-winning kimchi. Not to mention, cheery mascots of kimchi will grace the occasion in a special character event – as adorable Napa cabbages, radishes, red peppers and more. The Online Gwangju Kimchi market to buy kimchi and ingredients online and online kimchi TV to watch the exhibitions and contests also runs throughout the two-week festival.
Shin said, “I think it is a good opportunity how to make kimchi to young generation, and to introduce Korean traditional food to foreigners – I am sure that after the festival, they also send some kimchi to the senior citizens who are living alone. It is a good relationship and opportunity for the people to come together.”
Kimchi in the UAE
Amidst the warm summer dunes of UAE, outdoor fermentation is a difficult prospect, as the higher temperatures will encourage faster growth of bacteria. Korean expats and others interested make kimchi regularly at home and popularly use designated kimchi refrigerators for long-term storage as well.
Shin said, “In Dubai, room temperature is very high, so I just put (freshly made) kimchi out for one day and then put it in the kimchi refrigerator so I can enjoy after two days. I prefer to make kimchi in the wintertime in Dubai – the Chinese radish and Indian radish are in season. “
If you are looking to partake in the festivities celebrating this centuries-old nutritious dish, join in by making a classic cabbage kimchi, enjoy delicious stew or pancakes with any leftover kimchi in your fridge – or experiment with kimchi dumplings, ribeye steak with kimchi butter and Korean kimchi Jjigae for a fun dinner party.