Kimchi is to Korea as apple pie is to America. In recent years, Korea’s quintessential food, has made an appearance in more and more restaurants, recipes, tv shows, supermarkets and even local bodegas. We all know (and love) kimchi for its spicy, salty, sour, crunchy and healthy goodness. But did you know that...
When most people hear the word kimchi, they think of spicy, red-orange shards of napa cabbage, packed in a jar that smells like your roommate's gym socks. Contrary to popular belief, napa cabbage is only one of many different kinds of kimchi. There are over 100 known varieties, but the most common ones include kkakduki (spicy radish), oi sobagi (cucumber), bossam (rolled kimchi) and chonggak (young radish). Kimchi also refers to a process of fermenting vegetables (similar to the pickling process in the States).
Kimchi is both a seasonal and regional food. Koreans consume different types of kimchi throughout the different seasons of the year. For example, pa kimchi (green onions) in the spring, oi sobagi (cucumber) in the summer, napa cabbage in the fall and dongchimi (raddish water kimchi) in the winter. Each region of Korea also has it's own version of kimchi - for example in the food capital of Korea, Jeonju, the kimchis tend to have stronger flavors due to the heavy use of fish sauce and seafood. Bossam kimchi's are usually reserved for special occasions, whereas napa cabbage kimchi can be found on the dinner table every night. Certain kimchis also pair better with certain foods, like kkakdugi with seol lung tang.
Sauerkraut is shredded cabbage that is brined and fermented just like it's Korean counterpart. Because of the process and live cultures, it shares a similar sourness and pungency. Early Korean immigrants to the US would often eat sauerkraut to get their fix. Just like 'kraut, kimchi also tastes great on hot dogs (as popularized by Roy Choi's Kogi truck and Asia Dog in NYC). These days even Martha Stewart has a recipe.
Kimchi is a super food chock full of antioxidants, vitamins A, B, and C and most importantly healthy probiotic bacteria. Research has shown that the particular strain, lactobillus kimchi (aptly named), may even have anti-cancer properties. It has also been suggested to boost resistance to the H1N1 Avian Flu in birds and humans. Some go as far as to suggest it can prevent ebola! Research has also shown that kimchi can prevent heart disease and diabetes, as well as boost overall physiological function.
Despite being heavily touted by vegetarians or vegans alike as a great flavorful addition of their diet, kimchi is not always vegetarian. In fact the OG kimchis were made with just cabbage and beef stock. Today most variations of kimchi are made with fermented anchovy or shrimp pastes -- the glutamic acid found in fish products gives kimchi it's savory flavor. However recently kimchi makers have started producing vegan options to meet modern consumer demand.
Okay, maybe outlawed may be too strong a word, but in 2011 when the NYC DOH started handing out grades to restaurants for health and sanitation, Korean restaurants were penalized for leaving kimchi out at room temperature resulting in the kimchi rising above the DOH’s 41 degree fahrenheit standard for “cold foods”. Korean restaurateurs reasoned with the DOH that kimchi is unrefrigerated during the fermentation process, but was also below the 4.6 pH required for foods to be unrefrigerated. Eventually the DOH relented to pressure from Korean restaurateurs to make an exemption for kimchi. Phew!
In the 12th century, crafty Koreans developed a system of salting and fermenting vegetables to preserve them for winter. Every autumn, families would gather together to do a kimjang, a communal kimchi preparation ritual. Each family would contribute ingredients and share the laborious process of salting, cutting, mixing and prepparing kimchi so they would have fresh vegetables through the winter.
Koreans have such a fondness for kimchi that they have special kimchi refrigerators. Traditionally kimchi was prepared and stored in large clay pots that were buried in the ground. As archaic as it sounds, this process yielded extremely consistent temperatures and an environment ripe for fermentation and preservation. Koreans today now employ technology to do the same. Kimchi refrigerators (often going for $1500+) hold a consistent temperature that emulates a clay pot being buried in the ground. They also prevent the funky smell from cross-contaminating other goods in the fridge. Anyone who has drank milk stored in same refrigerator as kimchi will tell you how necessary a kimchi fridge truly is.
Kimchi roots date back to 7th century AD, but it was not until the 18th century that kimchi found it’s signature reddish color. It was also not until the 1800s that kimchi got it’s signature spicy flavor (although many non spicy variations are popular today). The red pepper was not introduced to Korea until the Japanese invasion of 1592 and was not used until over 200 years later. The red pepper was brought to Korea all the way from the Americas. America, f*** yeah!
Wherever there are Koreans, there is kimchi. When South Korean troops were sent to fight in Vietnam, the South Korean government sent kimchi to the front lines. Not surprisingly, when South Korea prepared its first space mission in 2008, kimchi tagged along. Scientists were interested in how the bacteria in kimchi would react to the radiation and cosmic rays in space. They were also intrigued by how fellow astronauts would respond to the smell in the confined spaces of the International Space Station. As a result, the South Korean government spent millions to reduce the bacteria levels and smell by as much as 50%. As a result, Korean scientists uncovered new truths about the fermentation process, and learned how to slow down the fermentation process-- which in turn allowed kimchi to be shipped worldwide for us to enjoy.
We hope you learned at least one new fun fact about kimchi. Now go out and get your garlic breath on!
Words by Jay Lee.