Kimchi isn’t just Banchan or a side dish for Koreans. It’s a way of life; it’s a philosophy. They even sent it with their astronaut Yi So-yeon to the International Space Station, in 2008
Made by fermenting various vegetables with salt and adding seasonings such as green onions, garlic, ginger, red pepper powder, and salted fish, kimchi holds a special place in their heart. It was a 3000-year-old method method of preserving food for winter, to prevent starvation in ancient Korea.
“Life without kimchi is unimaginable for Koreans. It is often said that the taste of a Korean family's food can be judged by the flavour of their jang or sauce and kimchi,” Yoon Sook-ja, a South Korean cooking researcher and professor at the Institute of Traditional Korean Food, based in Seoul, told Gulf News in an email interview.
She recalled the first kimchi dish that came to mind, “Kimchi stew”.
"Slightly stir-fried kimchi is boiled with broth, meat or seafood such as tuna and saury, and seasoning, to create a richly flavoured and spicy stew.”
Kimchi is the heart and soul of Korean cuisine and in every dish, practically.
The taste of Korean food, which is based on rice, complements kimchi so aptly that it is relished with every meal. Just to name a few, there’s kimchi stew, kimchi fried rice, braised mackerel kimchi, braised short ribs kimchi, dongchimi which is Korean radish with napa cabbage, and scallions, naengmyeon, a noodle dish, kkakdugi fried rice or diced radish kimchi with rice, budae jjigae or a stew with kimchi, sausage and baked beans, cheonggukjang, a traditional dish made by fermenting soya beans that includes kimchi, kimchi soup, kimchi jeon or pancakes, and white kimchi salad.
It is a national symbol for the country, imbued with many emotions and inextricable from the history of the nation. The taste has lingered on for generations, and become more prominent with time, moulded by different flavours. It comes from the wisdom of many ancestors, who would create it using vegetables harvested in the autumn to provide essential vitamins and minerals during the winter months when vegetables were scarce, explained Sook-ja.
A trip to the third century...
Korea’s tryst with kimchi began with just simply salting vegetables. It wasn’t called kimchi yet; but its presence pervaded the oldest historical records.
In the year 683 AD, King Shinmun from the era of The Three Kingdoms had a special gift for his wife, which included something called "sun", said Sook-ja. This was later understood to be a generic term for Eohae-jeotgal or salty preserved dishes, and Jeoji-kimchi, a kind of fermented fish sauce. "It is believed that vegetable-based kimchi existed during this period,” she added. The beginnings of kimchi are said to be during the time of The Three Kingdoms (57 BC - 668 AD)
The Three Kingdoms of Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla would later become Korea.
In fact, the people of Goguryo seemed far ahead of their time; they were already brewing beverages, making fermented soybean paste, and salt and fish. Chinese historical treatises from the third century like the Sanguo zhi Weizdonyizhuan showed that these people were already aware of the need for salt, an essential ingredient for kimchi. People had "excellent fermentation techiques", explained Sook-Ja. In fact, vegetables were being stored in large earthenware jars for fermentation, as seen even today in modern-day Korea.
Pottery, kimchi and temple cuisine
Ceramic culture and Korean food has always been strongly linked. The early excavations at the Miruska temple in Iksan Jeollabuk-do, founded in 600 AD, are proof. Large jars over a metre tall, which were buried in the ground, were identified as containers used for fermentation, wrote food and culture historian June Di Schino in her article, Kimchi: Ferment at the Heart of Korean Cuisine from Local Identity to Global Consumption, published in Cured, Fermented and Smoked Foods: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery (2011).
Similarly, at the Beopjusa temple AD 553, you’ll find a stone casket, which also testifies to the origin of kimjang or kimchi-curing and storage for the winter season. It is the head temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism and located in the province of Chungcheongbuk-do of South Korea. In fact temple cuisine in Korea has a very strong connect to fermentation, as it does not use any animal products except dairy, as Buddha said in the Nirvana Sutra, “Eating meat extinguishes the seeds of compassion.” Also temple cuisine does not use five pungent vegetables including onions, garlic, chives, green onions and leeks.
So, as per koreantemplefood.com, “ ...it uses a variety of mountain herbs and wild greens, which has led to the development of a vegetarian tradition. As most Korean temples are located in the mountains, providing easy access to wild roots, stems, leaves, fruits and flowers, monks and nuns have naturally become leaders in shaping vegetarian culture.
“If cheese, yogurt ... are typical fermented food in the West, those in Korea are kimchi, soy sauce, soybean paste, red pepper paste, vinegar, rice punch, and pine needle tea.” So fermentation added the much-needed savory flavor to temple food while helping in gut health.
The first mention
“Radishes grown inside the yard that are salted for winter months... ,” was the first description of kimchi, as written by Korean literary scholar and poet from the Koryo period Lee Kyu-bo (1168–1241 AD) in his poem, Six Songs on the Backyard Vegetable Plot. “He also noted that when cut with a knife, the roots of the vegetables used in kimchi tasted like a pear,” added Sook-ja.
During the Goryeo Dynasty that reigned from 918 AD to 1392 AD, that saw a strong rise of Buddhism, the production of kimchi began to gather momentum, explains Di Schino. Buddhists disallowed consumption of meat with kimchi in favour of vegetables. Eggplant, turnip, gourd, leek, royal ferns and bamboo shoots were used to make kimchi during this period. So, the flavours expanded and different kinds of kimchi began to emerge, plain, juicy and garnished. These new varieties utilised other kinds of plants such as white radish, cucumber, green onion, watercress and hollyhock.
The Joseon period and kimchi
The Joseon dynasty came into existence by 1392 AD. The Mongolians conquered the Korean peninsula, and brought with them a rush of revolutionary changes. A new bureaucratic class of scholar-official, called Shinjin Sadaebu, built Joseon after a dramatic coup d’état and adopted Neo-confucianism, a metaphysical Chinese philosophy, which involved a humanistic, rationalistic religious way of governing. Buddhism was rejected.
This transcended into different aspects of lifestyle, including their food habits. In terms of agriculture, it was an equally significant moment as farmers overcame the barriers of fallow-field farming, where the farmer ploughs, but does not cultivate for an entire planting season, to allow the land to become fertile again. New rice-planting techniques were introduced, where they directly sowed rice seeds, and consecutive planting was promoted. Crops were seeded at intervals of 7 to 21 days, explained Di Schino. This, was the beginning of kimchi being combined with rice-based dishes, as the abundance of rice made it a more widespread dietary staple.
Meat, too, became a part of the diet, and so, this found its way to kimchi. Kimchi with meat, became the new delicacy, especially pheasant-based kimchi. While the basic simple salt-pickled jangaji or vegetable pickles in simple brine still existed, newer forms like juicy radish nabakchi or kimchi with ginseng root came into existence, which would be eaten immediately.
As people began to experiment with flavourings, different seasonings of ginger, mustard leaf and garlic were added. For colour, scarlet cockscomb and safflower were added, explained Di Schino. Other new seasonings included vinegar, mandarin peel, madder and fennel. It was still milder in taste, as compared to the kimchi of today.
The use of red pepper powder
Kimchi didn’t always possess that trademark redness. It owes its colour to the amount of chili peppers used, brought by the Japanese invasion of the Korean peninsula, towards the end of the 16th century. The Japanese military, headed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a Japanese samurai, arrived and conquered Korea, bringing with them chili peppers and destruction. These peppers were not native to Japan either; they had been brought by Iberian missionaries who had sourced them from South American colonies, as Steffan Igor Ayora-Diaz, a Mexican professor of anthropology, explained in his book, The Cultural Politics of Food, Taste and Identity: A Global Perspective, published in 2021.
However, even after the advent of these chili peppers in Korea, it wasn’t until the 17th century that they were first used in the preparation of kimchi. By the early 18th century, the making of kimchi included Chinese cabbage, red chili pepper garlic and jeotgal or salted seafood, resulting in the popular varieties available today. Over twenty varieties of kimchi were detailed in the 17th century journal Jeungbo sallim gyeongje (Revised Farm Management, 1766), a Korean book on agriculture written during the reign of King Yeongjo (1724 – 1776 AD) of the Joseon Dynasty.
Kimchi was now made with a variety of ingredients, including the chonggak, a type of white radish, cucumber, and dongchimi, a kind of kimchi with napa cabbage, scallions and green pickled chilli.
Boosting soldiers’ morale
Coming forward a few centuries, Kimchi was almost like oxygen for Korean troops during the Vietnam War in 1965. This war was officially fought between north and south Vietnam and continued from 1955 to 1975. The US had been providing financial support for south Vietnam since the beginning of 1950s. By the first half of the 1960s, troop numbers were to be increased. Many foreign powers joined the US, including South Korea in 1965.
The South Korean government pleaded with the American government to send the Koreans rations of kimchi in Vietnam, saying that they were “desperate” for food. For months there was much speculation, with publications stating that the wives of the staff at the Korean embassy in Vietnam, were engaged in the preparation of kimchi for the Korean troops. According to food historian and researcher, Michelle T King in her book, The Culinary Nationalism of Asia , published in 2019, the summer of 1965 was a tense one for Koreans.
There were conflicting media reports about whether special rations of kimchi were being procured for the Korean troops or not. For instance, on July 8, 1965, the Korean newspaper Kyonghang Sinmun reported that the country’s parliament had discussed the matter of canned kimchi being provided as rations. Yet two days later, they reported it as being untrue. Two weeks earlier, another Korean newspaper, Chosun Ilbo had said that the American authorities had denied the request to provide Korean soldiers in Vietnam with special rations.
On March 14, 1967, the Prime Minister of South Korea, Chung Il-kwon, visited President Lyndon Johnson at the White House. He also brought with him a letter from South Korean president Park Chung-hee. In this letter, Park emphasised the importance of supplying Korean food to the troops in Vietnam, which would help their dangerously low morale. He mentioned that even he “…longed for kimchi more than his wife back in Korea… ”, while staying in the Unites States. The seriousness of the situation was finally acknowledged by Johnson who responded, “I fully understand the desire of your men in the field to enjoy familiar rations. That is the way it has always been with soldiers throughout history. Therefore, I have asked Secretary McNamara [Robert McNamara, US Secretary of Defence] to work out with your officials to meet your request that Korean forces be supplied with kimchi.”
Soon, Korean scientists and manufacturers were developing canned kimchi. In 1967, the canned products were finally delivered to the soldiers.
Kimchi, kimuchi and controversy
While Japanese have their ‘kimuchi’ today, there’s a strong distinction between kimuchi and kimchi. Japanese kimuchi is a non-fermented food that is consumed immediately after pickling vegetables in vinegar, with a small amount of red pepper powder and sugar used only for colouring, said Sook-ja. The Chinese have pao chai, which is a collection of vegetables that are fermented in an anaerobic jar, and uses a special brine that includes water and salt.
“Similarly, China's pao chai is a food that is consumed within a day or two, prepared by immersing cabbage, radish, carrot, cucumber, pepper, ginger, garlic, and other ingredients in salt water and consuming at a high temperature. The most significant difference between Korean kimchi and Japanese kimuchi and China's pao chai is that Korean kimchi is a fully fermented food. Korean kimchi and Chinese pao chai have different ingredients, manufacturing methods, and fermentation processes,” added Sook-ja.
The 1995 controversy with Japan
Earlier in the 1990s, a controversy brewed about the origins of kimchi between Japan and South Korea. Explaining the matter, Sook-ja said, “In 1997, the International Food Standards Commission (CODEX) created a dispute regarding the international food standards and naming conventions of kimchi. There was an international debate on whether it should be called kimchi or kimuchi. Fortunately, the dispute ended when Korea's Kimchi was adopted as an international food standard.”
The kinds of kimchi
The taste of kimchi depends on the local natural environment and the types of ingredients used, explained Yoon Sook-ja. The commonly consumed kimchi is the cabbage kimchi.
“The cabbage kimchi is made by dividing a whole cabbage in two pieces and soaking it in salt. Then, seasoning such as red pepper powder, garlic, ginger, green onion, mustard, fish sauce, and salted fish are added to the radish. It is stored at 0 to 5℃, slowly fermented, and consumed after six months from the 20th day,” she explained. Apart from the cabbage kimchi, there are over 200 kinds of kimchi, including radish, mixed gourd, green onion, cucumber, chives, vegetable, and beef brisket kimchi.
Sharing kimchi, an expression of love and co-operation
There’s a sense of familial togetherness in the preparation of kimchi. It’s a cultural tradition that embodies the spirit of co-operation and sharing, said Sook-ja. The development of kimchi had stemmed from the need to store vegetables for the long winter season in Korea, back in the thirteenth century.
This culminated in the festival of Kimjang, an important socio-cultural event that takes place in autumn, where large amounts of kimchi are prepared for the cold winter. Prepared primarily by women, it is a ritual that emphasises the importance of a family as a unit, noted De Schino. All families, villages, and clans in Korea reunite for this ritual.
The generational transmission of kimchi making mainly occurred among the women of a family based on personal experience and traditional knowledge. Today, kimchi making takes advantage of scientific methods as well, and its practitioners not only include male members of the public, but also schools and social groups.
Here are some kimchi recipes you can try at home:
Author Lauryn Chun in her book The Kimchi Cookbook: 60 Traditional and Modern Ways to Make Kimchi, published in 2012, recalled how her grandmother used to pack the cabbage in earthenware jars called ‘onggi’.
She described how the kimjang event brought several households together, who would make enough kimchi that would last several months. An entire day would be spent in brining and rinsing, and the next day would be dedicated to stuffing cabbage halves. “The seasoned filling would be spread between the leaves and packed in earthenware jars. Each household would have jars in the backyard,” she wrote. The onggi was stored at a cool temperature between 7C and 12C. Straw mats were placed on the lids, which protected the kimchi from freezing.
The kimgjang culture was listed in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of UNESCO in 2013, and the cultural value has been recognised as the spirit of sharing or community inherent in kimchi.
The magic of onggi
Dark-glazed ceramics and earthenware have played a crucial role in Korean food culture since the Three Kingdoms period. As the pots are not airtight, they are a suitable container for facilitating fermentation and storing kimchi, along with other foods. In the article, Onggi’s Permeability to Carbon Dioxide accelerates kimchi fermentation, published in the British Journal of the Royal Society in April 2023, Sooh-wan Kim and David L Hu explained that the porosity of the onggi's walls allow the bacteria to proliferate during the fermentation process.
In the mountainous regions, where the earth is unfit for ceramics, preserving of vegetables is carried out in light-weight wooden jars, which are made out of non-toxic willow logs lined with special oiled paper to render the containers waterproof, wrote De Schino.
According to an article on sciencedaily.com, titled, ‘Want better kimchi? Make it like the ancients did, there is now scientific validation for how the onggi works.
It said: “ ... thanks to recent research from David Hu, professor in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Tech, and Soohwan Kim, a second-year Ph.D. student in Hu's lab. ...highlights the work of artisans and provides the missing link for how the traditional earthenware allows for high quality kimchi.”
The research was originally published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. Apparently, “The porous structure of these earthenware vessels mimics the loose soil where lactic acid bacteria - known for their healthy probiotic nature - are found. While previous studies have shown that kimchi fermented in onggi has more lactic acid bacteria, no one knew exactly how the phenomenon is connected to the unique material properties of the container.”
The onggi's semiporous walls allow the carbon dioxide to escape the container but at a slow pace, as opposed to a non-porous container that seems to “suffocate” the lactic acid generating bacteria in their own carbon dioxide. This slow release helps the fermentation process, as the bacteria stay happy but the walls down allow anything to penetrate reversely, thereby protecting against contamination.
As professor Hu told sciencedaily.com: “It's amazing that, for thousands of years, people have been building these special containers out of dirt, but in many ways, they are very high tech. We discovered that the right amount of porosity enables kimchi to ferment faster, and these onggi provide that."
- Translation provided by E-Wha Kim, manager PR and Media at Korean Cultural center, Abu Dhabi, UAE
Note: This article was first published on May 3, 2023