Kimchi fun facts and history – KIMCHI AND KOREANS GO WAAAAAAAY BACK!
What comes to your mind when you think about Korean food? Among many candidates, kimchi will surely be on the list. This tangy and spicy fermented side dish has become an inseparable part of the Korean lifestyle, to the point where they view it as part of their identity (heck, it even has “Kim” in it). According to the studies tracking down the origin of kimchi, their camaraderie dates back as far as the Three Kingdoms period (57 BC to 668 AD), when it was in its primitive form as pickled vegetables optimized for long term storage. During the time, its name was ji 지, meaning “pickled”, and during the early Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), it was first called chimchae 침채 and timchae 팀채, which literally means “submerging vegetables (under saltwater)”, and later became 딤채 dimchae. Finally, it’s believed to have evolved into kimchae 김채 through palatalization, and finally became kimchi (here’s to you, Charles Darwin!).
Never Tried Kimchi Before? Try Choi’s Kimchi.
Kimchi fun facts and history – KIMCHI USED TO BE WHITE
Now, what color is kimchi? Well, if you said red (who wouldn’t?), it must be because the type of kimchi we encounter most frequently is the red hot baechu 배추 (used to be called Napa cabbage, but it’s more frequently referred to as kimchi cabbage as of late) kimchi and kkakdugi 깍두기 (cubed radish kimchi). As you might have guessed, this iconic red color comes from gochugaru 고추가루 (chili powder or red pepper powder) which is liberally used as a seasoning.
Having been used to this bold red color, you might be taken aback by the fact that kimchi wasn’t all that fiery back in the old days! It wasn’t until the late 16th or the early 17th century that Korea was introduced to this now-ubiquitous ingredient. As to how chili arrived in the Korean peninsula, there are many theories with convincing explanations, but one of the most widely accepted ideas is that it was the Japanese who brought it with them during their failed invasion attempts during 1592-1598. And interestingly enough, it was considered toxic for about 200 years and couldn’t earn a spot in the kitchen. Only at the beginning of the 19th century did Koreans start incorporating it as one of the main ingredients, and with the invention of tong baechu 통배추 (whole cabbage) kimchi in the early 1900s, it started to look like the ones we see today (until that time, mu 무 (radish) was the most popular ingredient).
Boise Salt Co. Korean Gochugaru Chili Flakes – 4 ounce Re-sealable Pouch is a pretty good choice if you plan to try your hands at Korean food.
Alternatively, if pure chili flakes are too much, you could try SEOUL SISTERS Korean Kimchi Powder Seasoning Mix
Kimchi fun facts and history – THERE IS EVEN A MUSEUM FOR KIMCHI
Established in 1986 with the mission to “display diverse aspects and stories of kimchi and enable visitors to feel, experience, and enjoy it,” the Kimchikan 김치간 has been “enhancing its renown as a prestigious museum promoting kimchi among people around the world.” Selected by CNN as “One of the World’s 11 Best Food Museums,” it consists of a media room, a souvenir shop, and special exhibition halls. Among all, their kimchi making experience program sounds fun. Imagine – wouldn’t the world be a much better place if men and women of all ages and colors could come together and make kimchi while singing kumbaya?
Kimchi fun facts and history – HOW MANY KIMCHI VARIETIES ARE THERE?
According to research, kimchi can be divided according to the 1) main ingredients 2) form 3) other supplementary ingredients. There are over 200 different kimchi varieties available, and it’s interesting to see that kimchi‘s from different regions of the country reflect their regional characteristics. For example in Jeju Island, kimchi made with abalone has been enjoyed as a local specialty while the residents of Jeollado Province have been making kimchi with chili, ginger, and yuja (citron) – ingredients that are abundant in the local area). If you were ordered by the King of Korea to make kimchi using the ingredients unique to your region, what would it be like?
Kimchi fun facts and history – CAN KIMCHI REALLY STOP A PANDEMIC AND SAVE MANKIND?
When SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and H5N1 Bird Flu swept across Asia (killing more than 700), people started wondering how South Korea was able to stay unaffected (only a few minor cases of infection reported), and people speculated that kimchi could be the possible answer. It became even more so after the BBC released a news report citing research conducted by Korean scientists where they fed kimchi extract to 13 infected chickens (Ugh… l know, but there is a Korean proverb “bitter to the mouth, better for your health”) and confirmed 11 of them recovered. The researchers, however, stated that the results are not scientifically sound. While the link between kimchi and pandemic prevention was unclear, there were clear winners – domestic kimchi consumption roared and the sales of kimchi at Korean restaurants in China also skyrocketed. (On a side note, Japan, not a big consumer of kimchi, remained just as undamaged as Korea, so you be the judge).
Kimchi fun facts and history – CHOSEN AS ‘5 HEALTHIEST FOODS’ BY HEALTH MAGAZINE BUT TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING CAN MAKE YOU SICK!
Back in March 2006, Korean people’s kimchi pride went through the roof (again) when Health magazine included kimchi as one of the 5 healthiest foods in the world along with yogurt, lentils, olive oil, and soy. Kimchi was praised for being rich in dietary fiber, vitamins A, B, and C, while providing lactobacilli (a.k.a. “healthy bacteria”) which is known to help with digestion. To further sweeten the deal, a recent study suggests that it may prevent the growth of cancer. But don’t open your kimchi jar just yet – consuming too much kimchi can bring negative health consequences – a study suggests that kimchi and other spicy and fermented foods may be linked to the development of gastric cancer – most common type of cancer found among Koreans. So enjoy kimchi but do not overindulge in it as too much of a good thing can make anyone sick.
Kimchi fun facts and history – KIMCHI IS NOT A MEAL
But if you are the adventurous (or reckless) type and insist on overindulging in kimchi, here is another reason why you might want to consider not doing it – KIMCHI IS NOT A MEAL. I repeat – KIMCHI IS NOT A MEAL, and nobody in Korea eats kimchi alone as a meal. It would be equivalent to having dill pickles for a meal. Rather, it is one of the numerous banchan 반찬 (side dishes) that are served along with rice and soup in a typical Hansik 한식 (Korean cuisine). This misconception has been further reinforced by the Korean government’s unrelenting effort to promote kimchi as a representative food of Korean cuisine (one of their favorite ways of promoting it is having an event where a group of foreigners try kimchi and say “delicious!” in front of a camera). The best way to appreciate kimchi is to enjoy it as an accompaniment to other delicious Korean dishes, like bulgogi and japchae. Mmm!
KOREANS TAKE KIMCHI WITH THEM EVERYWHERE, EVEN TO SPACE!
When I say everywhere, I mean EVERYWHERE! At the height of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, South Korean troops (joined as a U.S. ally) were feeling homesick, miserable, and low in morale. Park Chung-hee, the then President of South Korea, realized that providing them with an uninterrupted supply of kimchi would mitigate the pain and restore their valor. So he personally wrote a letter to Lyndon B. Johnson, the then President of the U.S.A., explaining what kimchi means to the South Korean troops and how it is directly correlated to their fighting spirit. Johnson acquiesced and established a direct procurement of canned kimchi to the battleground. Five decades later in 2008, Korea sent the very first astronaut, Yi So-yeon, to space. And guess what? South Korean scientists created a special low-calorie, vitamin-rich, and bacteria-free (although on Earth they are essential for the fermentation to take place, they feared that cosmic rays might mutate them) “Space Kimchi,” and she took it to space with her.
Don’t worry – the scientists also found a way to reduce the pungent smell of kimchi by one-third or half, while keeping the flavor. It was the moment kimchi went global, well, universal, rather.
Yup, you can get kimchi in a can, too.