The first thing that made me excited when I arrived in Seoul was that we were about to see more than a hundred types of kimchi that we had seen in movies. It is not for no reason that Korea is called in a loving way by the world as the “kimchi land”. To make it clear, we need to step into the time machine, going back a bit.
Legend has it that kimchi has a long history, it emerged about 2600 to 3000 years ago, and is called “chimchae” in Chinese, meaning “pickled vegetables”, simply made from napa cabbage and brine, to preserve cabbage after harvested. This practice is also common in other countries. However, it was not until the 16th century that Koreans began to add other spices to add a strong flavor to kimchi, making kimchi an indispensable dish on every table whether the diners are rich or poor.
“Baechu kimchi” (napa cabbage kimchi) is the most popular dish up to now. Previously, napa cabbage was marinated with lots of red peppers and garlic, then underwent fermentation. In the summer, when the fermentation process was fast, people often made fresh kimchi every day. In the winter, large jars of kimchi were covered with straw, then buried under the ground to keep it cold. In this way, the fermentation process would last for months. Kimchi is spicy and hot but has many vitamins, minerals, and lactic acid, which are good for the intestines and are believed to prevent cancer.
Later, in addition to chili and garlic, napa cabbage was marinated with many other spices such as scallions, celery, sesame oil, rice wine, soy sauce, and so on because the essence of Korean cuisine was the flavorful dishes: sweetness, saltiness, sourness, spiciness, and bitterness. Today, there are still many families making traditional kimchi. Some modern families store kimchi at around 40C in a small refrigerator. In 2013, Korea’s kimchi culture was recognized by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity.
In addition to a variety of ingredients, Koreans have created a variety of kimchi. During our days in Seoul, we tasted baek kimchi (the type of kimchi also made from napa cabbage without using chili powder to keep the white color), kkakdugi (white radish kimchi made from small cubed white radish), oisobaegi (cucumber kimchi), yeolmu kimchi (radish leaf kimchi), pa kimchi (scallion kimchi), buchu kimchi (chives kimchi), nabak kimchi (water kimchi – a special kimchi served on the table with kimchi soaking water, with a light, mild, little spicy flavor, served as a soup, giving a cool feeling. This is a suitable dish for heat relieving on hot summer days)…
In addition to using kimchi as a side dish with most dishes, Koreans use kimchi as an ingredient to process food to create other typical dishes such as kimchi soup, kimchi pancake, kimchi fried rice, fried egg kimchi, kimchi dumpling, kimchi beef stew, …
Every year, from October 24 to 28, Kimchi Festival in Korea is held with kimchi-making competitions, kimchi workshops, and many cultural performances. Kimchi ingredients are carefully selected and made directly at the competition. You can also purchase over a hundred varieties of locally made kimchi or order them through local websites. Koreans are admirable to be able to turn a seemingly ordinary dish into a colorful dish, the “soul” of the country, a great cuisine “ambassador”.
I wonder if you’ve ever seen the famous Korean movie about food: “The Kimchi War” (Le Grand Chef 2: Kimchi Battle)? The film tells the conflict of two sisters who were both taken care of by the same mother but had different views of point. Coming to the kimchi contest organized by the Korean government, in the first two rounds, the sister chose to improve, bringing the breath of modern age to the familiar types of kimchi; and the younger sister chose to make the best kimchi from traditional ingredients.
In the third round, the deciding round, with the theme “let’s make a kimchi that the whole world will all love”, both of them chose the most traditional and popular dish, the cabbage kimchi. Their decisions surprised the juries. They remembered the taste of their mothers’ kimchi. I was impressed by the saying of a jury: “How can the world love a kimchi that even we don’t find familiar?”. The message of the film was clear: cabbage kimchi is the type of kimchi that can create the greatest emotion, like a root of a tree deep in the memory of everyone, helping everyone remember the taste of their mothers’ food, of their childhoods, of their homes.
As for me, after trying many unique and delicious types of kimchi, cabbage kimchi is still the kimchi that I like best. How about you?
(The article was published in the magazine Wanderlust Tips, July 2018)