By Steve Miller
Kimchi (gimchi) is a traditional fermented vegetable dish often called Korea’s national food. More than 180 varieties can be found, with several cities and regions having “signature” versions. Today, most kimchi recipes found in stores use napa cabbage, radish, scallions, or cucumbers. In addition to being served as a side at most meals (banchan / 반찬), kimchi also serves as the main ingredient to other Korean meals such as kimchi jjigae (stew / 김치찌개) and kimchi fried rice (kimchi bokkeumbap / 김치볶음밥).
Kimchi was adopted as early as the Three Kingdoms Period, if not earlier, as evidenced by writings throughout East Asia. However, the original method of making the fermented dish required only cabbage and beef stock. Red chili, kimchi’s current signature ingredient is a New World vegetable not native to the peninsula. It was introduced during Japanese invasions and quickly incorporated along with other spices and seasonings.
Kimchi is believed to have several nutritional benefits. Among them are being high in dietary fiber, low in calories, providing high amounts of Vitamin C and carotene. Some research has indicated that it may assist with cancer prevention and recovery from the H5N1 (avian) flu.
Kimchi is made throughout the year, taking advantage of whatever vegetables are in season. November and December are traditional months for making a variety of kimchi. This is known as kimjang (김장). Usually matriarchs: grandmothers, mothers and their daughters gather to make several months worth (if not an entire year’s worth) of kimchi. The all day process ends with the women storing the new kimchi in clay pots to allow the kimchi to ferment. Previously, the pots were buried in the ground; however, modern kimchi refrigerators allow for precise temperature monitoring and are now the preferred method.
Sadly, many younger Koreans are no longer keeping the tradition of making kimchi at home alive. Many deem it too difficult and time consuming, relying on store-bought kimchi at home. Making kimchi doesn’t have to be difficult, as can be seen in this video:
Probably the greatest thing about kimchi made at home, is families have their own recipes, creating a unique culinary experience every time.