What is Kimchi?

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

Kimchi is a traditional Korean vegetable side dish. It is also spelled gimchi and kimchee. It is known as a banchan, or side dish in Korea. It is common to have many banchan served alongside a meal. Main courses may be accompanied by up to a dozen such side dishes. Kimchi, however, if the most popular of the lot.

Garlic is usually used during the fermenting process when making kimchi.
Garlic is usually used during the fermenting process when making kimchi.

This dish is made by fermenting seasoned cabbage and other vegetables. In addition to being served as a side dish, it is also served with rice. Furthermore, these vegetables are sometimes used as an ingredient in dishes such as kimchi jjigae (a kind of stew) and kimchi bokkeumbap (kimchi fried rice).

Chili peppers are a key ingredient in kimchi.
Chili peppers are a key ingredient in kimchi.

Because it has a very pleasing flavor and is also quite healthy, kimchi has recently gained popularity around the world. Although its popularity is growing and the dish is now served in many places outside of Korea, it has been a part of Asian culinary history for a very long time. In fact, there is a reference to kimchi in the oldest book of Chinese poetry known to modern man. Such references have lead historians to believe that Asian peoples were consuming the dish as long as 3,000 years ago.

The Kimchi Field Museum in Seoul illustrates the importance of the dish to Korean cuisine.
The Kimchi Field Museum in Seoul illustrates the importance of the dish to Korean cuisine.

It is believed that the earliest forms were simply salted vegetables, and that it was not until the 12th century that people began to incorporate spices and other flavors into the dish. Kimchi underwent another a dramatic change in the 17th century when chili peppers were introduced to Korea. Versions made with chili peppers are now the most popular form served the world over.

Kimchi is made by fermenting seasoned cabbage.
Kimchi is made by fermenting seasoned cabbage.

Napa cabbage is generally the main ingredient in kimchi, and the dish is usually fermented in brine with garlic, scallions, and ground pepper. However, there are many variations including other vegetables and spices. Other forms offer different kinds of flavors. As vegetables are a seasonal food, the many types were developed based on what was in season and on hand.

Kimchi has been so important in Korean cuisine that there is an entire museum dedicated to it. The Kimchi Field Museum is located in Seoul. Historians at the museum have documented nearly 200 distinct forms of this dish. In fact, there are some types that include seafood and resemble the Latin American dish ceviche.

Some cooks make kimchi using fresh vegetables in addition in cabbage.
Some cooks make kimchi using fresh vegetables in addition in cabbage.
Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

In addition to her work as a freelance writer for wiseGEEK, Diane is the executive editor of Black Lawrence Press, an independent publishing company based in upstate New York. She has also edited several anthologies, the e-newsletter Sapling, and The Adirondack Review. Diane has a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. from Brooklyn College.

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Discussion Comments

TrogJoe19

A Korean friend told me that Kimchi is one of those rare things which is both addictive and really good for your health. The delicious pickled and spicy taste of the lettuce makes it an important part of the Korean diet. Korean food in general is a well-kept and delicious healthy secret.

clyn

Although I'm not of Asian descent, for a while when I was very young, I had a friend who's mom was Korean. She made the most wonderful kimchi - I loved to go to her house and have her mom feed us.

I went to a restaurant recently that had kimchi on the menu, and it was nowhere near what I remembered. It wasn't even fermented! Very disappointing.

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