Koreans are very proud of their national dish: kimchi — the pungent, often hot, mixture of fermented and pickled vegetables, often cabbage. They typically eat it everyday at every meal including breakfast. When they are abroad, many Koreans say they miss kimchi more than they miss their loved ones. In addition to tasting good, Koreans say, kimchi is high in vitamins C, B1 and B2 and has a lot of fiber but few calories. Seoul at one time had three kimchi museums that sang its praises. The food was blasted into space with South Korea’s first astronaut in 2008. "We have lived with kimchi for centuries," one Korean woman told the Los Angeles Times. "It has become part of bodies. If you don't have it, your digestion process slows and your mouth feels out-of-sorts."

Kimchi (pronounced kim chee) is generally pretty spicy and comes in a variety of flavors that often vary greatly from region to region and even family to family. The main ingredients are cabbage and radish, which are fermented with red chilies, salt, and other vegetables. The taste can vary depending on what ingredients are used and how it is made. It can be eaten by itself, as a condiment or used in cooking such as stews and noodle dishes.Kimjang is the traditional Korean custom of making kimchi in the early winter to prepare for the cold months. [Sources: BBC, “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Foods and Recipes of the World”, The Gale Group, Inc., 2002]

Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: Almost any vegetable can be fermented to make kimchi, but Chinese cabbage and daikon radishes are the most commonly used. As part of the national diet for centuries, it has many variations depending on the region, season, occasion, and personal taste of the cook. Kimchi has long been the test of a housewife's culinary skills and a family tradition. A South Korean consumes an average of forty pounds (eighteen kilograms) of kimchi a year. Many companies produce kimchi for both domestic consumption and export.” [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

South Koreans eat more than 2 million tons in total each year. According to the cultural heritage administration in Seoul, about 95 percent of Koreans eat kimchi more than once a day; more than 60 percent have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Ju-min Park wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Koreans are crazy about kimchi, the ubiquitous dish that is served with every meal and is available as both entree and appetizer. There are kimchi pancakes, soup and fried rice. Even Western restaurants here offer the dish. And there's a kimchi museum in Seoul. As kimchi folklore goes, Koreans began eating the pickled dish about 1,300 years ago. Making kimchi is often a family affair: Parents and children pickle the Chinese cabbage harvested in the fall so it will last year-round. Most South Korean households have a special kimchi refrigerator to keep the odor from contaminating other foods. Twists on kimchi have come — and gone — in South Korea. There was the kimchi burger and kimchi risotto, both now footnotes in the history of the nation's cuisine. [Source: Ju-min Park, Los Angeles Times, July 23, 2009]

Origin of Kimchi

Koreans are very proud of their national dish — kimchi. They typically eat it everyday at every meal including breakfast. As is true with other fermented products like pickles, cheese and wine, kimchi likely began as a way of preserving cabbage that otherwise would rot. Anyone who has seen the huge amounts of cabbage after a harvest realizes it would be a tall order to eat it all. Plus you need to eat in the winter when crops do not grow.

There is archeological evidence that Koreans have been pickling, salting and fermented vegetables to preserve them for at least 3,000 years. According to the Korea Tourism Organization: “For as long as humans have been harvesting crops, they have enjoyed the nutritional elements of vegetables. However, during the cold winter months when cultivation was practically impossible, it soon led to the development of a storage method known as 'pickling'. Rich in vitamins and minerals, kimchi was introduced in Korea around the 7th century. Though, the exact date when hot pepper powder was first added remained unknown. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

“Nevertheless, it is presumed that beginning from the 12th century, several spices and seasonings began to gain popularity and it was not until the 18th century that hot pepper powder was finally used as one of the major ingredients for making kimchi. In fact, the very same kimchi as we know today has retained the same qualities and cooking preparations that prevailed ever since it was first introduced.”

History of Kimchi

In the 13th century, the scholar Yi Kyu-bo described the practice of pickling of radishes in salt water in the winter, a customs that reportedly gained favor as Buddhism took hold and people were encouraged to eat more vegetables and less meat. Spicy kimchi dates back to the 17th or 18th century when red pepper was introduced to Korea from Japan (red pepper in turn originated in Latin America and found its way to Japan via Europe). Other the years new ingredients were added and more sophisticated methods of fermentation were developed.

Katarzyna J. Cwiertka wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Food and Culture”: “Kimchi has evolved relatively recently to the form we know today. The so-called "white kimchi "(paek kimchi), which is still popular in the early twenty-first century, resembles most closely the original version. [Source: Katarzyna J. Cwiertka, “Encyclopedia of Food and Culture”, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]

“The addition of chili pepper came about in the mid-eighteenth century and gave kimchi its characteristic red color and pungent taste. Fermented seafood (chotkal), which has been included in the pickling from the late nineteenth century onward, not only enriched the taste of kimchi, but also increased its regional diversity. While at the end of the seventeenth century only eleven types of kimchi were classified, the regional variety of chotkal (some regions use shellfish, others anchovies or other kinds of fish) contributed to the development of several hundred varieties of kimchi. The type of vegetables that are pickled also changed. Gourd melon, cucumber, and eggplant have been used since ancient times; today napa cabbage and radish are the most common varieties.

“With the rising consumption of meat and seafood, and the popularization of Western-style food, the quantity of kimchi consumed by Koreans has declined as well. Yet, kimchi is still considered to be the most important element of the Korean meal and quintessentially Korean by Koreans and foreigners alike. “

Kimchi Pride

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Kimchi specialists abound here. The library of a kimchi museum in Seoul holds more than 2,000 books about kimchi and thousands more dissertations. ("A Kinetic Model for Lactic Acid Production in Kimchi" was among the recent titles.) New theses are being added at the rate of 300 per year. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, May 21, 2006]

Kimchi is a matter of great national pride."I think kimchi practically defines Korean-ness," said Park Chae-lin, curator of the museum. Although the most recognizable kind of kimchi is made with Chinese cabbage, other variants are made with radish, garlic stalks, eggplant and mustard leaf, among other ingredients. In all, there are about 200 types of kimchi — plastic models of which are on display at the kimchi museum in Seoul.

Korean pride swelled when the U.S. magazine Health listed kimchi in its March issue as one of the world's five most healthful foods. (The others are yogurt, olive oil, lentils and soy.) In fact, interest in kimchi's curative properties has risen proportionally with fears related to diseases such as severe acute respiratory syndrome and avian flu. During the 2003 panic over SARS, people started remarking that Korea seemed curiously immune, and speculation revolved around kimchi.

In March, 2006 LG Electronics put out a new line of air conditioners that have an enzyme extracted from kimchi (called leuconostoc) in the filters. Healthful or not, the kimchi industry is booming, abroad and at home. South Koreans consume 77 pounds of it per capita annually, and many people eat it with every meal, according to industry statistics. Koreans traveling abroad seem to take it with them everywhere.

“"Koreans can't go anywhere without kimchi," said Byun Myung-woo, head of a team of scientists who developed a specially sterilized form of kimchi for astronauts. The idea came about because taste and smell are greatly diminished in low-gravity conditions, giving astronauts a preference for strongly spiced foods. And astronauts often suffer from digestive problems. "The kimchi will prevent constipation and enhance their digestive functions," Byun said.

Kimchi and Life in Korea

Kimchi is generally eaten with rice or as a side dish for every Korean meal. It is also commonly used as an ingredient for other dishes. Making of kimchi, or gimjang in Korean, is a significant household event taking place annually all across the nation thus, the taste of the dish varies by families and regions. Recently, however, households who still practice gimjang have been decreasing and prefer to consume store-bought instead. Reacting to this consumer behavior, more and more large and small supermarkets, and even convenient stores prepare large quantities of kimchi in their inventory. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

Katarzyna J. Cwiertka wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Food and Culture”: Kimchi and pickled vegetables “are the most basic, indispensable element of every Korean meal. Neither a feast nor a most meager fare would be complete without it. For centuries kimchi was the sole side dish to accompany the staple of Korea's poor, whether it was barley, millet, or, for the fortunate few, rice. It was also a fundamental meal component in affluent households. Three kinds of kimchi were always served, regardless of how many side dishes were to appear on the table. To a contemporary Korean, rice and kimchi are the defining elements of a minimal acceptable meal. Yet, it is kimchi, not rice, that is regarded as the symbol of Korean culture. [Source: Katarzyna J. Cwiertka, “Encyclopedia of Food and Culture”, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]

The garlic-pepper mixture of kimchi plus a fondness for eating raw garlic gives Koreans very garlicky breath. The smell sometimes permeates public buses and subways and sometimes Westerners have a hard talking face to face with Koreans because of the garlic smell. Many Koreans chew mints or gum to hide the smell. The French, Italians, Spanish, Chinese, Mexicans, Hungarians and Thais also use a lot of garlic in their cuisine and they too have garlic breath.

Nutritional Value of Kimchi

Kim chi is rich in lactic bacteria and vitamins C, B1 and B2 and has a lot of fiber but few calories. According to the Korea Tourism Organization: Eating kimchi highly recommended because of its nutritional values! Thanks to the fermentation process, kimchi is packed with tons of vitamins and minerals and it not only contains lactic acid bacteria, a bacterium that helps with digestion and combats against harmful bacteria. Some Koreans claim it ward off aging, reduces cholesterol and prevents the growth of cancer. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

“When it was first made prior to the Three Kingdoms Period (AD 57-668), it required a very simple recipe of salting and storing napa cabbage in a ceramic container for fermentation. In the old days, kimchi was an important source of vitamins in the winter, when fresh vegetables were unavailable. What was originally a simple salted pickle has now become a complex dish requiring assorted seasonings and varying according to climate, geographical conditions, local ingredients, methods of preparation, and preservation.

According to BBC Good Food: The nutritional value of kimchi “can vary slightly depending on the ingredients used, but a standard cabbage kimchi will contain 40 calories per 100 grams. It has about 1.1 grams of protein, 0.4 grams fat and 7 grams of carbohydrates of which just 0.3 grams is sugar and 0.8 grams is fibre, making it a low sugar product. Kimchi is a good source of folate which is important in pregnancy to reduce the risk of central neural tube defects, potassium that helps control the body’s balance of fluids and calcium which is important for muscle contractions as well as strong teeth and bones.

“Kimchi is quite high in salt though and should be used sparingly, especially for those with high blood pressure. Just 2 tbsp kimchi can provide around 2 tsp salt, so check the labels and look for lower salt varieties. There is growing evidence that fermented foods such as kimchi may improve intestinal health and as a result support the immune system and anti-inflammatory responses. Kimchi can also improve levels of good bacteria in the gut, and may help improve symptoms such as constipation and diarrhoea.”

Frederick Breidt, a US microbiologist, told AFP: "Lots of bacteria in kimchi have pro-biotic effects and they can help your immune system get stronger." Korean researchers even claim it helps ward off bird flu, and coronavirus diseases like SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), although no medical evidence yet backs this up. Kim Young-Jin of the government-financed Korea Food Research Institute said tests in 2008 showed almost all mice fed with kimchi survived bird flu after being infected with the virus, while 20 percent of the mice not given kimchi died. "I suspect we may get very similar results from swine flu as well," he said. [Source: AFP, 27 October 2009]

Is Kimchi the Miracle Food As Claimed

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “For years, Koreans have clung to the notion that kimchi has mystical properties that ward off disease. But what was once little more than an old wives' tale has become the subject of serious research, as South Korean scientists put kimchi under their microscopes.” In April 2006, “scientists at the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute unveiled a kimchi especially developed for astronauts to prevent them from getting constipated in space. A researcher at Ewha Woman's University in Seoul reported that kimchi lowered the stress levels of caged mice by 30 percent. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, May 21, 2006]

“At the Kimchi Research Institute in Busan, hairless mice fed kimchi were reported to develop fewer wrinkles. With a government grant of US$500,000, the institute is developing a special anti-aging kimchi that will be marketed this year. Other new products are anti-cancer and anti-obesity kimchi. "We are proud that we can use scientific methods to confirm the health benefits of our traditional food," said Park Kun-young, who heads the institute.

The beneficial power of kimchi comes from the lactic acid bacteria (also found in yogurt and other fermented foods) that helps in digestion and, according to some researchers, boosts immunity. In addition, the vegetables are excellent sources of vitamin C and antioxidants, which are believed to protect cells from carcinogens. The high fiber content aids bowel function.

Much of the research has been government-funded. Understandably, perhaps, dissenters on the topic of its healing power are circumspect. "I'm sorry. I can't talk about the health risks of kimchi in the media. Kimchi is our national food," said a researcher at Seoul National University, who begged not to be quoted by name. Among the papers not to be found in the vast library of the kimchi museum is one published in June 2005 in the Beijing-based World Journal of Gastroenterology titled "Kimchi and Soybean Pastes Are Risk Factors of Gastric Cancer."

“The researchers, all South Korean, report that kimchi and other spicy and fermented foods could be linked to the most common cancer among Koreans. Rates of gastric cancer among Koreans and Japanese are 10 times higher than in the United States. "We found that if you were a very, very heavy eater of kimchi, you had a 50 percent higher risk of getting stomach cancer," said Kim Heon of the department of preventive medicine at Chungbuk National University and one of the authors. "It is not that kimchi is not a healthy food — it is a healthy food, but in excessive quantities there are risk factors." Kim said he tried to publicize the study but a friend who is a science reporter, told him, "This will never be published in Korea."

“Other studies have suggested that the heavy concentration of salt in some kimchi and the fish sauce used for flavoring could be problematic, but they too have received comparatively little attention. Even the most ardent proponents say that at times, kimchi might be too much of a good thing. Nutritionist Park, who in addition to the Kimchi Research Institute heads the Korea Kimchi Assn. and the Korean Society for Cancer Prevention, said that traditionally, kimchi contained a great deal of salt, which could combine with red pepper to form a carcinogen. Nowadays, with refrigeration, less salt is needed, Park said. Instead of preserving kimchi by burying it in earthenware jars in the garden, many Koreans own specially designed refrigerators to keep it at ideal temperatures.

Kimchi Variations

There are around 300 different kinds of kimchi, each with its own ingredients. Almost any vegetable can be fermented to make kimchi, but Chinese cabbage and daikon radishes are the most widely used. The most common type of kimchi is made with pickled cabbage fermented in a mixture of garlic, choktal (fermented anchovies, baby shrimp or swordfish) or salted fish, onions, ginger and red pepper. Traditional Korean homes have earthenware jars for fermenting kimchi and homemade soy sauce, bean paste and red pepper paste.

Type of kimchi are generally classified into: 1) over-wintering pickles and 2) those that can be pickled and eaten at any time in spring, summer or autumn. The most common kinds are pickled cabbage, pickled radish and pickled cucumber, of which red-colored kimchi made from celery cabbage in winter is the most popular. Other forms of hot kimchi include wrapped kimchi, stuffed cucumber kimchi, hot radish kimchi, whole radish kimchi and water kimchi. Among the forms of kimchi that aren't so hot are white cabbage kimchi, and radish water kimchi.

The flavor of kimchi varies quit a bit from region to region. The kimchi from Kyonggi-do has a simple, light taste while the kimchi from Chungchong-do has a lot of choktal and a stronger flavor. Kimchi from the southwest is particularly hot and spicy while the kimchi from mountainous Kangwondo has a fishy taste because it is made with squid or walleye. In addition, there are many variations in recipes and forms, offering the fun of tasting different textures and flavors from all over Korea.

Types of Kimchi

Katarzyna J. Cwiertka wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Food and Culture”: “There are hundreds of varieties of kimchi. Every region, village, and even family used to cherish its own special recipe, applying slightly different preparation methods and using slightly different ingredients. Napa cabbage (Brassica chinensis or Brassica pekinensis) made into paech'u kimchi is the most common type, followed by radishes (Raphanus sativus) made into kkaktugi kimchi. [Source: Katarzyna J. Cwiertka, “Encyclopedia of Food and Culture”, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]

Baechu-kimchi is the most popular kimchi enjoyed by most Koreans. It is made with a whole salted cabbage (uncut) mixed with hot pepper powder, garlic, fish sauce and other spices, which is then left for fermenting. This particular kimchi varies by region, with the southern part of the country known for its saltier, spicier, and juicier flavors. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

Kkakdugi is diced radish kimchi. The basic ingredients used for fermenting are similar to that of baechu-kimchi, with the exception that radish plays the main role in this particular case. Although radishes are available all year-round, winter radishes are sweeter and firmer, a top reason why many preserved side dishes are made of radishes.

Nabak-kimchi (water kimchi) is the less spicy version of kimchi with both cabbages and radishes combined. Using a great deal of kimchi stock, and it tastes sweeter than other types of kimchi due to the addition of fruits such as apple and pear.

Yeolmu-kimchi translates to “young summer radish kimchi.” Although they are thin and small, young summer radishes are one of the most common vegetables for kimchi during the spring and summer season. Prepared with or without the fermentation process, yeolmu-kimchi completes almost all food eaten on a hot summer day.

Oi-so-bagi (cucumber kimchi) is preferred during spring and summer days, as the crunchy texture and refreshing juice makes unique delicacies itself.

Kimchi Recipe

Kimchi can be made with cabbage, radish, cucumber or other vegetables as the central ingredient and flavored with julienne radish, minced garlic, diced green onion, salted fish, salt. Cabbages and other vegetables are soaked in salt water, then seasoned with different spices before being fermented. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

1 cup medium cabbage, chopped
1 cup carrots, thinly sliced
1 cup cauliflower, separated into small pieces
2 Tablespoons salt
2 green onions, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, thinly chopped, or 1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, finely grated, or ½ teaspoon ground ginger [Source: “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Foods and Recipes of the World”, The Gale Group, Inc., 2002]

1) Combine cabbage, carrots, and cauliflower in strainer and sprinkle with salt.
2) Toss lightly and set in sink for about one hour and allow to drain.
3) Rinse with cold water, drain well and place in a medium-size bowl.
4) Add onions, garlic, red pepper and ginger.
5) Mix thoroughly.
6) Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 days, stirring frequently to mix flavors.
7) Allow kimchi to sit for 1 or 2 days to ferment. The longer it sits, the spicier it will become.

Making Kimchi

To make kimchi, vegetables are placed for several hours in brine, washed with fresh water, and drained. Then, flavorings such as ginger, chili pepper, spring onions, garlic, and raw or fermented seafood are added, and the mixture is packed into pickling crocks and allowed to age. Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “The cabbage is cut and packed into a brine containing the other ingredients where it soaks up the flavors and ferments in special crock pots for more or less time depending on the season. At home the women of the household will trim and wash the vegetables, prepare the brine, and pack the raw kimchi away in big jars (called tok) to sit for several weeks before it can be doled out in small side dishes at the table. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

To make kimchi you: 1) clean the cabbage, split it in half and pickle it in salt. Typically you peel off the outer leaves of cabbage, wash them clean and soak them in brine for two or three days. 2) Slice radishes and green onions into thin strips, and ground garlic and ginger. 3) When the cabbage is well pickled, wash and the let the water drain. 4) Make the kimchi paste by mixing ingredients such as ground red pepper, radish, leaf mustard, capsicum powder, mashed garlic, ginger powder, salt, sugar and green onions. 5) Add fermented pickles, sea salt and choktal, dried oysters, shrimp paste or fish sauce for seasoning. 6) Put the prepared ingredients evenly between the cabbage leaves. Break off the leaves of cabbage one by one, and with fingers and thumbs, slather on the cabbage leaves the spicy kim-chi paste. 7) Use an outer leaf to wrap the cabbage and pack it in an earthen jar or vat and cover it. 8) Let the cabbage and ingredients ferment gradually, preferably in an earthen jar buried under ground or in a cellar or cool place. In half a month or so, the kim-chi is ready to eat. Before having it, chop it into sections.

The kimchi-making season is late autumn, or around the beginning of winter according to the Chinese traditional calendar in late November and early December after cabbage is harvested (cabbage is hardy plant that grows even in sub-freezing temperatures). The taste of kimchi depends of things like the fermenting temperature, salt content, type of choktal used. Among the ingredients are cabbage, salt, capsicum powder, garlic, ginger, fruit, spices and seafood such as dried, unshelled shrimps, dried scallop, oyster, walleye or pollack. The methods for making it vary in different places and among different people.

Kimjang (Making Kimchi)

Kimjang is the traditional Korean custom of making kimchi in the early winter to prepare for the cold months. Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Winter kimchi is made during a kind of national festival known as kimjang, which follows the cabbage harvest in the fall. The food markets receive truckloads of Chinese cabbage and the average family will buy as many as 100 heads, with all the accompanying necessities including the ingredients for the alternate forms of kimch that are made with radishes, turnips, and cucumbers. Kimjang is a major social occasion, a kind of national pastime where people socialize in the markets and in helping each other prepare the food. The process is the same at other times of the year but involves smaller quantities and different combinations of ingredients, and the fermentation period varies. In the summer it may be just a day or two. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

In November 2008, 2,200 housewives gathered in front of Seoul City Hall and made 130 tons of kimchi that was donated to needy families as a food source for winter.

On the 10-Day Gwangju Kimchi Cultural Festival in 2009, AFP reported: “ The festival in this southwestern city is being held under the slogan "Say Kimchi," a Korean version of western photographers' requests to "Say Cheese." It features a kimchi-making contest for a prize donated by President Lee Myung-Bak, kimchi storytelling competition, exhibitions, kimchi-making lessons, a kimchi bazaar and dance and performances depicting kimchi fighting off flu. [Source: AFP, 27 October 2009]

Hundreds of volunteers helped to make two tons of kimchi at the charity event. “Festival organisers said Gwangju and surrounding Jeolla province produce the country's best kimchi thanks to favourable weather, fertile soil, sun-dried sea salt, fermented anchovies and other seafood. The government plans to build a 40-million-dollar kimchi research institute by 2011 in Gwangju,”

Kimjang (Making and Sharing Kimchi): a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage

Kimjang — the making and sharing of kimchi — in the Republic of Korea (South Korea) was inscribed in 2013 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Kimjang, which involves the making and sharing large quantities of kimchi ahead of the long winter months to come, is an essential part of Korean culture. Despite being centered around kimchi, this practice has never been limited to just food preparation. Kimjang is more of a ceremony, bringing family members together, promoting cooperation among members of society and sharing with the less fortunate. This provides a sense of identity and unity, enhancing ties among different communities. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

According to UNESCO: Kimchi is the Korean name for preserved vegetables seasoned with spices and fermented seafood. It forms an essential part of Korean meals, transcending class and regional differences. The collective practice of Kimjang reaffirms Korean identity and is an excellent opportunity for strengthening family cooperation. Kimjang is also an important reminder for many Koreans that human communities need to live in harmony with nature.

“Preparation follows a yearly cycle. In spring, households procure shrimp, anchovy and other seafood for salting and fermenting. In summer, they buy sea salt for the brine. In late summer, red chilli peppers are dried and ground into powder. Late autumn is Kimjang season, when communities collectively make and share large quantities of kimchi to ensure that every household has enough to sustain it through the long, harsh winter. Housewives monitor weather forecasts to determine the most favourable date and temperature for preparing kimchi. Innovative skills and creative ideas are shared and accumulated during the custom of exchanging kimchi among households. There are regional differences, and the specific methods and ingredients used in Kimjang are considered an important family heritage, typically transmitted from a mother-in-law to her newly married daughter-in-law.

The Tradition of kimchi-making in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) was inscribed in 2015 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity According to UNESCO: The tradition of kimchi-making has hundreds of variants. It is served daily but also on special occasions such as weddings, holidays, birthday parties, memorial services and State banquets. Although differences in local climatic conditions and household preferences and customs result in variations in ingredients and recipes, kimchi-making is a common custom nationwide. Kimchi-making is mainly transmitted from mothers to daughters or mothers-in-law to daughters-in-law, or orally among housewives. Kimchi-related knowledge and skills are also transferred among neighbours, relatives or other members of the society who work collectively, sharing know-how and materials, to prepare large quantities of kimchi for the winter months. This activity, known as kimjang, boosts cooperation among families, villages and communities, contributing to social cohesion. Kimchi-making brings to the bearers a sense of joy and pride, as well as respect for the natural environment, encouraging them to lead their lives in harmony with nature.

Kimchi and Foreigners

Most foreigners aren't very fond of kimchi. The Lonely Planet Guide to Northeast Asia called it "a reasonable substitute for tear gas." Even so, about 11,000 tons of kimchi (worth about US$50 million) was exported to various countries in 1995 (about 83 percent of it went to Japan) and one Korean company invested US$1.5 million in a research project to find a way to "globalize" kimchi and make it "as popular as American pizza around the world."

The Japanese are very fond of kimchi. They eat a lot of the stuff and even have kimchi courses and kimchi package tours. Koreans were outraged in the mid-1990s when the Japanese began marketing a Japanese-made kimchi under the trade name of kimuchi and registered patents for the product in some countries. Koreans dismissed kimuchi as bland, raw and immature. Kimchi's recipe in South Korea received international codification of in 2001 due to the country’s dispute with Japan.

A number of Korean companies produce packaged kimchi with the intent of exporting it overseas. A spokesman for such company, Zonggajip, told the Korean Times, “We have confirmed that our product meets the palate of even non-Asian foreigners and its just a matter of finding the right marketing channel.” He said their biggest growth markets were in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Malaysia.

Twenty-nine-year-old Maryjoy Mimis, who attended the Gwangju Kimchi Cultural Festival in 2009, told AFP that she vividly recalls her first encounter with kimchi when she arrived in South Korea from the Philippines in 2003 to marry a local man. "It looked so strange and smelled strong, and I thought I wouldn't be able to eat it. It was simply not right for me as a foreigner," she said. "The taste was too strong and too spicy for me. But kimchi is so addictive and once you become hooked on it, you cannot go without it. Now I never eat noodles or rice without kimchi. " she told AFP. Sandy Combes, a 26-year-old American English said, "It is strange food and spicy. At first I did not like it but right now I really like it," said "My mouth feels on fire." [Source: AFP, 27 October 2009]

In recent years kimchi has become more commonplace far away from Korea. Justin McCurry wrote in The Guardian: Kimchi now crops up on menus in restaurants from Los Angeles to London. The spicy, garlicky cabbage dish is to be found as a pizza topping and taco filling in the UK, Australia and the US, where the Obamas are said to be converts. [Source: Justin McCurry, The Guardian, March 21, 2014]

Commercially-Produced Kimchi

Since the 1960s, when factory-made kimchi appeared on the market for the first time, the number of urban families who continue to make their own kimchi has gradually diminished. In the 1990s, about 85 percent of the kimchi eaten in Korea was made at home. The remaining 15 percent was produced commercially. The amount of commercially-produced kimchi being sold is increasing because Koreans are busier than they used to be and have less time to buy the ingredients and make kimchi. Also, the commercially-produced varieties are better than they used to be. One of the biggest problems with packaging kimchi is that fermentation produces carbon dioxide which causes containers and packages to expand and burst.

Reporting from a kimchi factory in Qingdao, China, Don Lee wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “At Jo Sung-gu's factory, the pungent smell of red pepper, garlic and onion wafted through the low-slung building. Employees passed through an air-spray disinfectant before entering the workroom. Vats brimmed with Chinese cabbage. "We soak them for 15 hours," Jo said. He walked farther down the production line where white-capped workers tore the outer leaves of cabbage heads. They then rinsed them six or seven times with the same Laoshan Mountain spring water that is used by the famous hometown brewer Tsingtao Beer. [Source: Don Lee, Los Angeles Times, November 24, 2005]

As of 2005, 230 types of kimchi imported from China were being sold in Korea. Out of these products, some were produced in China and sold under a Korean brand name. “Makers of kimchi, or paocai in Chinese, have clustered around Qingdao in Shandong province, largely because this region is rich in vegetables. It is also close to ports in South Korea and Japan.” After it sales to South Korea were stopped, Qingdao Meiying weathered “the storm better than most rivals because half of its kimchi is sold in China and the other half in Japan. Other companies, such as Qingtao New Redstar Food, however, have been closed for a month because they serve mainly South Koreans customers.”

Kimchi Theme Park

Kim Soon Ja, Kimchi Master’s Kimchi Theme Park is located in Hanok Maeul Village, 1, Gilju-ro, Wonmi-gu, Bucheon-si, Gyeonggi-do. It has traditional and cultural experiences and temple stays. Admission is 30,000 won for adults and 10,000 won for youths. Activities include kimchi making traditional Hanok, traditional Korean wedding, archery experience, toreutics (artistic metalworking) experience, folk plays, swing, seesaw, hoops, Korean shuttlecock and Tuho. There is also of course a photo zone

Kim Soon Ja is the first Kimchi Master in Korea who has devoted 30 years of her life to developing and promoting Kimchi, Korea’s most famous delicacy. Kim Soon Ja, Kimchi Master’s Kimchi Theme Park share the time-honored secrets about this essential and quintessential Korean food and offers an opportunity to learn about the history, origin and the excellence of Kimchi. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization]

The hands-on program is open to both locals and foreigners alike and after the program, a simple meal that includes rice balls, makgeolli (rice wine) and of course, the master’s Kimchi will be served. Located at the Hanok Village in Bucheon Gongbang-geori (arts craft streets), the theme park also offers an opportunity to enjoy the genuine beauty of Korea through a variety of activities such as exploring the Hanok (a traditional Korean house), wearing the Hanbok (Korean traditional costume), meeting an archery master and a metal craft master. The beautiful nature surrounding the Hanok village offers a great backdrop for those travel photos as well.

South Korean Creates Kimchi That Won't Smell

Kim Soon-ja says her freeze-dried kimchi has the taste but not the odor of regular kimchi. Ju-min Park wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “As a connoisseur of kimchi, Kim Soon-ja takes a package of the fermented cabbage everywhere — even overseas. But there has always been one indelicate matter: how to mask the garlicky and often offensively pungent odor. "My tour guide asked me not to take out my kimchi in public because it can be distasteful to foreigners," Kim, 56, says of a trip to Europe several years ago. Instead of being insulted, Kim went to work on a novel culinary concept that in this country was about as revolutionary as the seedless watermelon: She wanted to take the funky odor out of her beloved kimchi, which ranks among odoriferous global foods such as Limburger cheese and China's "stinky tofu." [Source: Ju-min Park, Los Angeles Times, July 23, 2009]

“The ambitious curly-haired woman had already been named by the South Korean Food Ministry in 2007 as the nation's first kimchi master, a designation that honors her mastery of the dish. Working with a team of food experts, she set to work to come up with a new type of freeze-dried pickled cabbage that doesn't smell even after water is added, appealing to both foreigners and the fussiest Korean eaters. Kim says she is the first to create freeze-dried kimchi and has secured a patent. "When it soaks in water either hot or cold for a few minutes, it will become just like ordinary kimchi," says Kim, the owner of Han Sung Food in suburban Seoul.

“Kimchi's odor has always been a stumbling block. According to a survey by the Seoul-based Corea Image Communication Institute, the unique smell of Korean food is the biggest barrier to globalizing the cuisine. Even in South Korea there's a social no-no known as kimchi breath — the whiff of cabbage seasoned and fermented in chili, garlic and ginger that can send listeners reaching for their handkerchiefs.

“Kim, who has run her own kimchi factory since 1986, isn't stopping with freeze-dried cabbage. She says the concept can be used in beer and wine, and for making such snacks as dried kimchi dipped in chocolate. "Crispy but yummy!" she says. "Also, it's full of fiber." But not everyone here is convinced that less stinky means better. Food critics suggest that the pungent smell is a fascinating part of the blood-red dish. "Some people who like freshness could dislike" dried kimchi, says Cho Jae-sun, a food science professor at Kyung Hee University. The dish, an acquired taste, isn't the same without its telltale aroma, Cho says. Kim shrugs off such doubters and says she has already taken one order from Japan, even though her product has yet to go into mass production.”

Lots of Kimchi in South Korea Now Comes From China

Due to high demand, South Korea imports large amounts of kimchi from producers in China while Korean kimchi producers export very little to because of Chinese regulations on pickled goods. According to the World Institute of Kimchi, South Korea's kimchi exported US$89.2 million worth of kimchi in 2013, down 16 percent on the previous year, most of it to places other than China. The Guardian reported: But imports — almost all of which come from China — rose almost 6 percent to US$117.4 million . That left the South Koreans with a kimchi deficit of more than US$28 million — and a wound to their national pride that has festered since the trade imbalance first appeared in 2006. "It's a shame that so much of our kimchi comes from China," said Kwon Seung-hee, who teaches tourists how to make the dish at her guesthouse in Seoul. "It's cheap, but it doesn't taste as good as ours. I can tell straight away if I'm eating imported kimchi." [Source: Justin McCurry, The Guardian, March 21, 2014]

“Chinese kimchi is cheaper and, for most diners, impossible to identify as a "fraud". The trade deficit, coupled with declining consumption at home, has been described by one politician as an ordeal "as harsh as a Korean winter". But South Koreans are now looking beyond their own borders to secure kimchi's long-term future. Jia Choi, president of O'ngo Food Communications, a cookery school in Seoul, said, "We need to keep pushing Korean-made kimchi as authentic, in the same way that European countries promote their cheese and wine. "We're a tiny country compared to China, so although we can't compete in terms of volume, we can remind people around the world that our kimchi is authentic and safe."

China-South-Korea Trade Spat After Parasite Eggs Found in Kimchi

In 2005, South Korea banned the import of kimchi from China, alleging it was contaminated with parasites. Chinese producers said the ban was an unfair and a form of protectionism. Then some parasites were found in South Korean kimchi.Reporting from Qingdao, Don Lee wrote in the Los Angeles Times: In 2003, Jo Sung-gu was riding the kimchi craze. The stocky manager of a kimchi factory here could barely keep up with orders for Korea's fiery national dish. Instead of fruit and wine, Jo took boxes of kimchi to people's homes. But these days, the 50-year-old South Korean thinks twice about giving kimchi as a gift. His factory shut down for two weeks this month, and he has laid off workers. Now, Chinese authorities are holding back exports, and across the Yellow Sea, kimchi is being quarantined at ports in South Korea, his largest market. "There's not much I can do. I have to wait," says Jo, whose company, Qingdao Xinwei Food, is among about 120 Korean and Chinese kimchi producers in this coastal region in Shandong province. [Source: Don Lee, Los Angeles Times, November 24, 2005]

“A trade spat over the spicy cabbage is straining relations between China and South Korea. Kimchi sales have fallen sharply in Asia after officials in Seoul last month banned Chinese-made kimchi, saying some samples contained eggs of parasitic worms. Beijing retaliated by prohibiting imports of kimchi and several other foods from South Korea, saying they too contained parasite eggs. Although analysts say most of the bacteria found aren't harmful to humans, the ruckus has smeared the good name of kimchi — a US$830-million industry in South Korea alone — and put a spotlight on food safety at a time when consumers are nervous about avian flu and other food-borne diseases.

“Producers in China say the pickle controversy boils down to base protectionism. They claim that South Korean politicians and others beholden to their kimchi farmers stirred up the issue to stop the booming growth of Chinese-made kimchi, especially shipments to Korea. Kimchi is to Koreans what pasta is to Italians. South Koreans have protected the kimchi heritage with as much zest as the juices that ferment inside clay kimchi jars. Before the latest drop-off, exports of Chinese-made kimchi to South Korea were on pace to reach nearly US$50 million this year, about 6 percent of the South Korean market. Chinese kimchi has also been cutting into South Korea's exports to Japan.

The South Koreans "are looking for any reason to crush Chinese kimchi," said Wang Lin, a senior manager at Qingdao Meiying Food Co., which has seen its kimchi exports to Japan drop by 12 percent. Wang said Koreans complained two months ago that the Chinese kimchi was contaminated with lead. Analysts are not surprised at the quarrel over kimchi. China's handling and inspection of food have left much to be desired, they say. Among other things, local health officials have ordered kimchi cabbage growers to use chemical fertilizers instead of human waste or animal manure, which South Korean food inspectors suspect may have contaminated China-made kimchi.

Higher Cabbage Prices Cause Kimchi Crisis

In 2010, freakish fall weather produced heavy September rains that ruined much of the napa, cabbage crop, used to make kimchi, causing prices to jump fourfold to more than US$10 a head, producing what was described as a national kimchi crisis. John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “In response, the federal government announced a temporary reduction in tariffs on Chinese-imported cabbage and radishes in a plan to rush an additional 100 tons of the staples into stores this month. And the Seoul city government began a kimchi bailout program, in which it is absorbing 30 percent of the cost of about 300,000 heads of cabbage that it has purchased from rural farmers. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, October 10, 2010]

“Depriving Koreans of their kimchi, many say, is like forcing Italians to forgo pasta or taking all the tea from China. "We can't stand life without kimchi even for one day," one woman said. The shortage has raised tempers and led to intemperate political statements. When President Lee Myung-bak announced he would eat only kimchi made from what he said was cheaper round cabbage common in Europe and North America, many people erupted in anger. The round cabbage, Internet users pointed out, was only slightly cheaper here than the Chinese variety, suggesting the president's claim was out of touch with the needs and concerns of the working class. "For the president to say something like that is like Marie Antoinette saying, 'Let them eat cake!' " one blogger groused.

“The shortages have come at the onset of gimjang season, when families lovingly hand-prepare the kimchi they will consume during the winter and spring. Many stores have posted "out of stock" signs in the Chinese cabbage bins. Many of the cabbages that are still available are anemic. Kimchi home delivery companies have also suspended services. In recent days a black market cabbage trade has sprouted. Police say that many residents are hoarding the vegetables for resale. Four men were recently caught stealing more than 400 heads of Chinese cabbage. Many Seoul consumers are now driving into the countryside on weekends in an attempt to buy directly from farmers.”

Kimchi Crisis No.2: Younger Generation Eats Less of It

Young Koreans are eating less kimchi that their elders. Jia Choi, president of O'ngo Food Communications, told The Guardian: "Interest in traditional Korean traditional cuisine is waning. Kids today eat a more varied diet that includes a lot more western food, and that's why kimchi consumption is declining year after year." [Source: Justin McCurry, The Guardian, March 21, 2014]

Dr Park Chae-lin of the World Kimchi Institute in Gwangju, told the BBC: "Domestic consumption has dropped dramatically. People rarely have all three meals at home these days, they're trying to eat less salty foods, and there's more choice available. Western foods are becoming much more common, even at home, and people don't tend to eat kimchi with spaghetti." [Source: Lucy Williamson, BBC, February 4, 2014]

The government is trying to reverse the trend. "We need to raise awareness of the true value of Korean national kimchi" Lee Yong-jik, deputy director at the Ministry of Agriculture's kimchi department told the BBC. "We're trying to educate people. To get them accustomed to Korean food, starting from childhood; hold training courses, and make it fun for families."

Koreans Aghast over Chinese-style Kimchi Winning International Certificate

In December 2020, Reuters reported: “China's efforts to win an international certification for Pao Cai, a pickled vegetable dish from Sichuan, is turning into a social media showdown between Chinese and South Korean netizens over the origin of Kimchi, a staple Korean cuisine made of cabbage. Beijing recently won a certification from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) for Pao Cai, an achievement the state-run Global Times reported as "an international standard for the Kimchi industry led by China." South Korean media was fast to dispute such a claim and accuse the bigger neighbour of trying to make Kimchi a type of China-made Pao Cai. [Source: Daewoung Kim and Soohyun Mah, Reuters, December 1, 2020]

“The episode triggered anger on South Korean social media. "Its total nonsense, what a thief stealing our culture!" a South Korean netizen wrote on, a widely popular web portal. "I read a media story that China now says Kimchi is theirs, and that they are making international standard for it, It's absurd. I'm worried that they might steal Hanbok and other cultural contents, not just Kimchi," said Kim Seol-ha, a 28-year old in Seoul.

“Some South Korean media even described the episode as China's "bid for world domination," while some social media comments flagged concerns that Beijing was exercising "economic coercison." On China's Twitter-like Weibo, Chinese netizens were claiming Kimchi as their country's own traditional dish, as most of Kimchi consumed in South Korea is made in China. “Well, if you don’t meet the standard, then you’re not kimchi," one wrote on Weibo. "Even the pronunciation of kimchi originated from Chinese, what else is there to say," wrote another.

“South Korea's agriculture ministry on Sunday released a statement saying mainly that the ISO approved standard does not apply to Kimchi. "It is inappropriate to report (about Pao Cai winning the ISO) without differentiating Kimchi from Pao Cai of China's Sichuan," the statement said.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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