Koreans were eating kimchi 2,000 years ago. So much has changed since then, but the kimchi tradition still hasn’t gone out of style.
With fads and trends determining the rise and fall of foods every day, a Korean meal today just isn’t complete without it.
How can it be that kimchi traditions have such staying power?
Well, first of all, kimchi is a preserved food made from local vegetables that was invented out of necessity before refrigeration was an option.
Pots of kimchi pickles and ferments used to be stored underground. The inherent coolness of the earth’s bedrock was enough to keep the nutrient-rich kimchi edible for months. It must have seemed like magic before scientists came along and described how the whole thing takes place.
It is fermentation that makes a kimchi. In the process of starting a kimchi ferment, the microbial composition of the kimchi is altered in a way that greatly reduces the microbes that would otherwise spoil it. In this environment, rather than getting moldy, the vegetables in kimchi just get softer.
Admittedly, softening does make the vegetables less appetizing over time. But if you had to choose between soft vegetables and no vegetables, the choice is obvious.
Anyways, a softer kimchi can still be the star ingredient in a tasty stew, or mixed with fried rice. In this way, Koreans enjoyed their nutrient-rich vegetables long after the harvest, and they enjoyed a wide variety.
The Chinese historical text dated 289 AD, Records of the Three Kingdoms, stated that Korean people “are skilled in making fermented foods such as wine, soybean paste, and salted and fermented fish.” This is according to Wikipedia.
Right! It is true that kimchi is just one of many, many types of fermented foods that are part of Korean culture.
There are a couple hundred distinct variations of kimchi traditions, let alone other Korean fermented foods. Imagine being able to enjoy this cornucopia in the middle of the winter, 2,000 years ago.
It was all made possible by the discovery that microorganisms could preserve food. I love it!
So now you understand a bit about why the kimchi tradition survived millennia and entered the current era of modern and refrigerated food. But you may still be wondering, why are we still eating the stuff?
What Is A Modern Kimchi?
It is thought that the first-ever kimchi was made from white radish (often called daikon radish), which is an indigenous vegetable in Korea. I’ve got a recipe for radish kimchi here, and it is really good.
Despite what most people associate with kimchi today, the most traditional kimchi wasn’t spicy at all. It wasn’t spicy for most of kimchi’s history, because the Gochugaru pepper flakes that give today’s kimchi its fiery red color, were introduced to the country only in the 1700s.
Koreans must have loved these chiles though, because today when most of us think of kimchi, we conjure up napa cabbage packed with some variation of red chiles, garlic, ginger, scallions, and—unfortunately for vegetarians, but I am sure it is delicious, and luckily there are vegetarian options—salted seafood.
The funny thing is, napa cabbage isn’t native to South Korea either. It was introduced into the country only in the end of the 19th century.
This makes me think that napa cabbage and peppers have won the prize as the most ideal carrier of flavor and texture for kimchi. Millions of people cannot be wrong, can they?
Check out my recipe for Vegetarian Napa Cabbage Kimchi.
Fun Facts About Kimchi
Kimchi is considered to be Korea’s national dish, even “symbolic of Korea,” according to Dr Park Chae-lin of the World Kimchi Institute, quoted in a BBC article.
It is so ubiquitous, if you have ever been to a Korean restaurant anywhere in the world, you would have likely been served kimchi along with a selection of other condiments (think those other pickles and ferments in clay jars) that come in small dishes along with your main course.
I also find it super interesting that during South Korea’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the Americans were asked by the Korean government to help ensure that the troops got some kimchi while out on the battlefield, as it was seen “as vitally important to the morale.”
Korean astronaut Yi So-yeon also had to have her kimchi. Millions were spent to manufacture a kimchi that was free of bacteria and less odorous, so it could be sent into space without disturbing others on the mission.
Of Course, It’s A Healthy Food
Are Koreans eating kimchi because of tradition? Yes, and no. If kimchi didn’t taste really good, one doubts they would still eat it.
Kimchi is a super healthy food, and Koreans know that. It is only those of us living elsewhere who are only now catching on to this fact.
Regular consumption of fermented foods is really good for building a healthy gut environment and increasing immune resistance. According to recent scientific discoveries, kimchi is filled to the brim with good bacteria (as many as 900 strains :)) and at least four probiotics that promote healthy digestion.
This healthy bacteria, called lactobacilli or lactic acid bacteria, is the same variety found in good yogurt. It helps with digestion by balancing out the ratio of bad guys to good guys in the gut.
4 SURPRISING FACTS ABOUT MICROORGANISMS IN THE HUMAN BODY
- Our human body is only 10% human cells. The remainder is microbial cells.
- Some commentators have gone so far as to refer to the human body as a superorganism “whose metabolism represents an amalgamation of microbial and human attributes.” (Haha. Human attributes:))
- The human gut hosts an average of 1 trillion microbial cells and 40,000 bacterial species.
- Only 1% of the microorganisms in humans have been identified and described.
Andrea’s Conclusion: There is a lot we do not know, but fascinating isn’t it?
The Kimchi Tradition Is Still Needed
Deliberate consumption of healthy bacteria can help to heal the sensitive internal environment most Americans have created in their bodies from consuming large amounts of processed, sterile foods, or what is otherwise known as the standard American diet, or SAD.
Processed food is not just a problem in America either. Nearly everyone in the world has been affected by the global shift toward refined sugars, polished rice, monocultures of wheat and other crops, processed foods, and industrialized meat.
This homogenization of food has led to a homogenization of the gut, otherwise known as a microbiome. It is understood that a healthy microbiome consists of 40,000 different types of microbes that perform the important work of keeping us healthy.
An unhealthy gut has been correlated with a shocking number of health disorders, including diarrhea, digestive disorders, mental health conditions, heart health, allergies, eczema, a weak immune system, and weight gain.
Man, if eating some kimchi the way Koreans have been for centuries, can help with all these maladies, then why not give it a try?
It sounds counterintuitive, but exposing ourselves to the right microbes is good for the diversity of our internal environment. Some enlightened doctors are even suggesting that their patients eat a little dirt with their vegetables. Good idea! As long as it is organic dirt - haha.
Store-Bought Versus Homemade?
I am lucky to live near a giant Asian supermarket specializing in Korean food. So I went there one day looking for kimchi. Naturally, they carry a large selection in their refrigerated section.
Do you believe I could not find a single product that didn’t have seafood in it? To make matters worse, a napa cabbage kimchi kind of looks like seafood. Don’t you think?
So this disappointing experience is what prompted me to go on a mission to make my own kimchi, and am I glad I did.
I made kimchi on the first day of spring, and I felt like a hero preparing wholesome vegetable and making something that would comfort and detox my body during the special time of early spring. I went on quite a Korean kick actually, but that is another story, or perhaps another post:)
These days you can buy small batch kimchi from a specialty store like Whole Foods, and if you are lucky you can find a vegetarian option, but it is so easy to make at home, why not give homemade kimchi a try?
While kimchi is sure to last at least another 1,000 years, there is still no time like the present.
Two Vegetarian Kimchi Recipes
INGREDIENTS FOR NAPA CABBAGE KIMCHI
- 3 pounds Napa cabbage, cut into 1-inch pieces
- ½ cup coarse natural sea salt, see note
- 6 scallions, sliced into 1-inch pieces
- for the napa cabbage kimchi paste
- ¼ cup cooked kabocha squash cubes, peeled
- 1 yellow onion, cut into chunks
- ½ cup Korean soy sauce
- 8-10 garlic cloves
- 1- inch piece of ginger
- 1 tablespoon raw sugar
- ½ cup Korean red chili flakes
>> Visit the link to make Napa Cabbage Kimchi
INGREDIENTS FOR RADISH KIMCHI
- 3 cups water
- 3 tablespoons coarse sea salt
- 1 tablespoon raw sugar
- 1 pound white daikon radish, cut into thin 2-inch sticks
- ½ medium onion, sliced thinly
- 1 Asian pair, sliced thinly
- 2 scallions, cut in half lengthwise, then into 2-inch pieces
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
- ½ inch piece of ginger, grated or minced
- 1 fresh chili pepper, sliced thinly
>> Visit the link to make Radish Kimchi
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