The Story Of Korean Kimchi And The Ancient Art Of Making It
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Kimchi, the fermented dish from Korea, has a history as rich and complex as its flavours. In 2013, the art of making kimchi was listed on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. This recognition not only highlights kimchi's importance in Korean culture but also celebrates the craftsmanship and communal traditions associated with its preparation. 

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In contemporary Korean cuisine, kimchi remains a staple at almost every meal, symbolising health and longevity. It is celebrated for its nutritional benefits, being rich in vitamins and being beneficial for digestion. Kimchi's probiotic properties have made it a subject of interest in health and wellness circles globally.

The globalisation of Korean culture has brought kimchi to international prominence. Korean restaurants around the world serve kimchi, and it has become a popular ingredient in fusion cuisine. The versatility of kimchi allows it to be used in a variety of dishes, from traditional stews and pancakes to modern burgers and tacos.  Let’s go back in time to understand how Kimchi has transformed and evolved over time.

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The Back Story

The origins of kimchi are believed to date back over two millennia. References to fermented vegetables can be found in ancient texts, suggesting that kimchi has been an integral part of Korean cuisine since at least the Three Kingdoms period (57 BCE - 668 CE). Originally, kimchi was a simple fermented vegetable dish, primarily made with radishes and seasoned with salt. The primary purpose was preservation, allowing vegetables to be stored and consumed during harsh winters when fresh produce was hard to find.

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The Transformation

One of the most significant changes that came about in the making of kimchi that resulted in making it taste the way it does, is believed to have taken place in the late 16th century. Around that time, Korea was introduced to chilli peppers. Brought by Portuguese traders from America, chilli peppers revolutionised Korean cuisine. 

They became a fundamental ingredient in kimchi, giving it the distinctive red colour and spicy flavour that we associate with the dish today. The incorporation of chilli peppers not only enhanced the taste but also had preservative qualities, which improved the longevity and safety of the fermented vegetables.

There’s More Than One Kind Of Kimchi

Over the centuries, kimchi has diversified into a myriad of varieties, reflecting regional preferences and seasonal availability of vegetables. The most well-known type is Baechu kimchi, made with napa cabbage, radishes, chilli pepper, garlic, ginger, and fish sauce. Some of the other varieties include - 

Kkakdugi: A type of kimchi made with cubed radishes.

Oi sobagi: Cucumber kimchi, usually eaten in  summer.

Chonggak kimchi: Made with young radishes, known for its crunchy texture.

Baek kimchi: A white kimchi variety, which is not spicy and is seasoned with ginger, garlic, and salted shrimp.

Each region in Korea has its own unique recipe, often influenced by local ingredients and climate. For instance, the kimchi from Jeolla province is known for its bold flavours and generous use of seasonings, while the kimchi from the northern regions tends to be milder and less spicy.

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How Kimchi Is Made

Kimchi is more than just a side dish; it is an integral part of the Korean way of life. The process of making kimchi, known as kimjang, is a communal activity that brings families and communities together, especially in preparation for winter. Kimjang is typically conducted in late autumn when families gather to prepare large quantities of kimchi to last through the cold months. This tradition fosters a sense of community, cooperation, and shared labour, strengthening social bonds.

Traditionally, families would go to markets or farms to purchase fresh ingredients in bulk. They would then clean the vegetables thoroughly and salt them. Salting is a critical step that helps preserve the cabbage and gives it the right texture. The chopped cabbages are generously sprinkled with coarse sea salt, especially between the leaves. The salted cabbage is left to soak in salted water for several hours, typically 6-12 hours. 

The Kimchi paste is made with chilli pepper flakes, garlic, ginger, fish sauce , salted shrimp, sugar or sweet rice paste. This paste is then mixed with the cabbage and this is packed in airtight containers. The packed kimchi is left at room temperature for a day or two to kick-start the fermentation process.

After the initial fermentation, the kimchi containers are moved to a cool place, traditionally buried in the ground or stored in a kimchi refrigerator, which maintains a constant temperature ideal for slow fermentation. The kimchi ferments over several weeks to months, developing its distinct tangy and complex flavours.

Kimjang is as much about community as it is about food. The process is often a festive occasion where families and neighbours gather to work together, share stories, and enjoy meals. UNESCO's recognition of kimjang as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity shines the spotlight on the importance of these communal practices and the skill and knowledge passed down through generations.

With the hectic, urban lifestyle these days, many Koreans buy commercially made kimchi rather than making it at home. However, efforts are being made to preserve this cultural heritage. Festivals, workshops, and educational programs are organised to teach younger generations the art of kimchi-making, ensuring that the traditions and skills are not lost.