At the heart of Korean cuisine is kimchi, a banchan (side dish) with spicy, sour, and slightly sweet flavors that lend a unique complexity to any meal. Perhaps Sohui Kim explained it best in her book Korean Home Cooking when she shared what her father used to say: “If you don’t have kimchi on the table, you’re not eating well.”
What is kimchi and how is it made?
The Korean Kimchi Cookbook by Kim Man-Jo, Lee O-Young, and Lee Kyou-Tae briefly delves into the history of kimchi, explaining that early records show kimchi has been around since the Goryeo Dynasty (918–1392 CE), though some scholars argue that kimchi’s oldest variations date back much further. Harsh winters in Korea made food preservation essential, and one method consisted of salting vegetables, among other foods, and storing them underground in earthenware containers to ferment.
While there are a few ways to make kimchi, the basic approach is somewhat consistent. Your vegetable of choice (Napa cabbage, Korean radish, and cucumber are common picks) is first pickled in brine, then drained and seasoned with a paste that consists largely of gochugaru, fish sauce, and water. Other common accompanying ingredients that go into the mix include garlic, ginger, Asian pear, scallions, and salted shrimp. The seasoned veggies are then packed into an airtight container before being stored in the fridge to ferment.
During the fermentation stage, the lactic acid that was first produced during the initial pickling step proliferates. According to Hooni Kim, author of My Korea, the “lactic acid lowers the pH of the vegetable, giving the kimchi its distinct sour flavor.”
While many definitions of kimchi include the words “fermented vegetables,” that’s not the full story. In The Korean Kimchi Cookbook, you’ll see that even squid and green persimmon can be kimchi’d. The main stars of these varieties aren’t vegetables, though the recipes still call for radish, carrots, or cucumbers in the vegetable mix. Bottom line: Nearly anything can be kimchi, and vegetables will almost always play the supporting role if not the main. With all the room for variation, it’s no surprise then that there are well over 100 types of kimchi including the common Napa cabbage version.
Recipes for kimchi can vary greatly depending on household, restaurant, and even where you are on the map. Even though raw oyster and octopus are common additions that promote bacteria growth during the fermentation process, for example, you’re less likely to find them in kimchi made outside of Korea.