Oxford Symposium of food&cookery 2010



Kimchi: ferment at the heart of Korean cuisine:

from local identity to global consumption.

June di Schino

This paper offers an overview of kimchi, underlining the central role played in Korean every day life.

Kimchi is a unique fermented food which originated from the natural environmental conditions and traditional cooking skills of Korea. Although a wide variety of wild and cultivated vegetables have always been abundant here during the warm seasons, the sub-arctic climate with long severe winters created the need to invent a way of preserving this important source of food. Kimchi is considered to be a prehistoric food and evidence can be traced back to simple leafy greens pickled in brine matured underground in clay vessels dating back to 2030 b.c.

At this time cultured green vegetables became widespread, indicating how fermentation was an early transformative and preserving procedure in cookery. Archaeological, archeo-botanical evidence, as well as wall paintings dating back to the first century, indicate the use of large jars for fermenting foods.

Excavations at the Mirùska temple (Iksan) founded around 600 a.d. have revealed a collection of large jars (some over a metre tall) buried in the ground, which have been identified as receptacles used for fermentation. Prior to this, a stone casket, still visible today at the Pòpjusa Temple (553 a.d.) is considered to be one of the first artefacts testifying the origin of kimjang (kimchi-curing and storage for the winter season).

The first documentary records of fermented foods appear in the Koguryójòn section of Sanguo zhi Weizdonyizhuan, a Chinese history treatise written in the third century which describes Korean customs and foods: ‘the Koguryó people are very good at making fermented foods such as wine, soybean paste, salted and fermented fish, confirming the belief that fermented foods were widely enjoyed at that time. Similar evidence can be found in a fifty volume work entitled Samguk sagi, completed in 1145 A.D., which recounts that King Shinmun gave gifts including soybean paste and fermented fish to his bride’s parents.

The origin of the word kimchi is thought to derive from the Chinese “chimchae”, meaning soaked vegetables, and similarly the word kimjang from ‘chimjang’ as Chinese ideograms were used in Korea until the development of Han-geul script by scholars under King Sejong (1418-1450) who promoted the arts, science and technology.

In early kimchi production, pickling methods were used for  turnip, gourd, leek, royal fern, bamboo shoots and tódók (Codonopsis lanceolata). During the early Koryò dynasty (918-1392) Buddhists suppressed meat in favour of vegetables and kimchi became diversified into three kinds: plain, juicy and garnished utilizing many other varieties such as white radish, cucumber, green onion, watercress and hollyhock. Subsequently the Chosòn Dynasty which began in 1392 saw a Renaissance of culture, agriculture and printing bringing newer and more widespread methods of cultivating and curing vegetables. Meat taboos ended with the introduction of an innovative delicacy: the pheasant meat kimchi. During this period we still find simple salt-pickled jangajji, alongside newer forms like desalinated singònji, juicy radish nabakchi, which could be eaten almost instantly and savoury tongchimi which required long term fermentation.

Flavour began to evolve with the introduction of different seasonings like ginger, mustard leaf and   garlic, while in order to improve colour, scarlet cockscomb and safflower were added. After 1500 many spices like chilli pepper were introduced into Korea bringing about a radical change in kimchi processing which developed from simple salting to more sophisticated techniques  which included salted fermented fish (sometimes blended into a paste) known as chotkàl or jotkàl.

Geographic and climatic differences influenced the taste and the consistency of kimchi. Korean cabbage, large white radish (about the size of a pineapple) and red chilli pepper with its distinctive pungent taste became highly popular ingredients and when mixed together with chotkàl completely transformed the taste and texture of kimchi. An invaluable historical document entitled Jùngbosallimkyòngje (1761) illustrates the diverse and imaginative use of vegetables and for the very first time, lists about 41 different kinds of kimchi among which: sungikimchi (whole cabbage, still very popular today known as baechu, paechu or paechutongkimchi) sobaegi (stuffed cucumber kimchi) sòkbakji (radish kimchi) and even suk kkakdùgi, made especially to meet the requirements of the elderly.

Kimjang is an important socio-cultural event which takes place in late autumn during which large amounts of kimchi are prepared for the long cold winter. High value is attributed to all aspects of  n togetherness , especially the sharing of food  and the convivial context. From a sociological viewpoint Koreans recognize the extreme importance of the family as a unit, especially in its extended form, and the country itself is considered in these terms. Hence families and villages, boroughs and clans all unite to re-enact this centuries old ritual. No-one would think of preparing kimchi alone. Generally women of all ages participate, even young girls, as this is tradition is carried out by experienced female hands. In this essentially communal context the cabbage is selected, cut, then soaked in sea-salt brine while the seasoning is prepared for the second stage. The ability to prepare kimchi is an essential aspect of a young woman’s education and will become a primary credential for marriage. It is interesting to note that Umshikdimibang, one of the first cookbooks of detailed recipes including kimchi was written by a noblewoman around 1671.

‘No kimchi, no party’ might seem a facile expression, but in reality no kimchi in Korea often dramatically means no food. Rice (bap) and kimchi make up the staple diet of the Korean population. To show the profound sense of social solidarity present in Korea even  today, on 9 November, 2009 in Seoul, about 2,500 housewives got together to make 50,000 packets of kimchi which were donated to the poor as the basis  for their winter food supply.

Fermentation and storage have always been vital to Korean foodways and the beautiful ceramic jar, which is a  fascinating subject on its own,  played a significant role. As the country’s climate varies from one extreme to another the need to stabilize fermentation and to preserve  kimchi for long periods is essential. Kimchi jars could be left in a stream to cool preventing the content from becoming rancid, or buried in the earth to utilize the  natural geophysical warmth.There is an enormous  differentiation in these receptacles which are chosen according to a vast range of shapes and sizes: large pots are called ‘tok’, smaller ones ‘tanji’. When selecting the appropriate jar, even the  season, the date and place of production would be taken into account and the women of each region consider their particular jar to be the one. There is a theory that the more elaborate the container, the finer the kimchi will be. Some women even sleep with one.

Korean ceramic culture and kimchi are interlinked.The interesting connection is that Korea is renowned for its wonderful dark glazed ceramics and these earthenware receptacles with the right requisites have played an integral role in food culture since the Three Kingdoms period (57 b.c.-668 a.d.)  As the pots are not airtight but slightly permeable, they provide the perfect container for facilitating fermentation and storing kimchi and other foods. Prior to this usage, and in those regions like the mounainous Kangwan-do where the earth is unsuitable for ceramics, preserving was (and still is) carried out in light weight wooden jars made of  hollowed out non-toxic willow logs lined with special oiled paper to render the receptacles waterproof.

Kimchi pots do not stand alone. The social context of preservation can even  be recognised in the grouping together of kimchi pots in a communal area: sometimes several households unite, sometimes a small community creates a site. To protect this ‘family of pots’ from snow and rain, a  tent-like shelter made of rice straw is erected, and  is closely guarded.  Sometimes cockscomb is planted around the area to ward off the evil spirits which might interfere with the alchemical process of fermentaion.

This study focuses on the development of kimchi from a primitive fermented food into a sophisticated selection of delicacies cutting across social, geographic and ethnic barriers. Kimchi is consumed daily by every single Korean, not just at lunch and dinner but at breakfast too and children are introduced to this food at an early age. More kimchi is eaten  than any other vegetable and the average person consumes  between  ten to fifteen kilograms a year -approximately  four hundred tons per year.

Kimchi represents the true spirit of Korea. This is well reflected in the unique religious tradition for remembering the dead. This memorial service known as jesa, during which ancestral blessings are invoked, is celebrated with special foods, and written records such as Oneguginsòljo of Koryòso  and Koryòjo of Sejongshillok show the significant role of kimchi. This specific connection between past, present and future emphasize how kimchi has become a transcendental medium. Only fresh, crisp kimchi (which tend to be less juicy owing to the lack of fermentation) are used in this religious ritual. Nabak kimchi made of small white radish is prepared and, in the case of baechu kimchi only the hearts of the cabbage are used. These varieties are arranged ‘standing up’ in bowls which is a sign of courtesy in Korean food language.

Buddhism has influenced every aspect of Korean culture including food, which explains the vegetarian tradition of utilizing every root, herb and leaf to make kimchi. The foods of the temples reflect these religious principles, hence chotkal (fermented salted fish ) and oschincae, the five ‘hot’ vegetables: garlic, green onion,  rocambole (red chesnok garlic), wild leek and honggyu are prohibited for ascetic reasons. Kimchi made by monks in the temples is generally lighter and more varied in consistency owing to the addition of steamed barley gruel, potato starch water, pine nuts, and sesame seeds. Many temples are renowned for their own particular kimchi made with all kinds of wild herbs found in the vicinity, which characterize the taste. The  Kúmansa, Songnamsa and Pongùnsa Temples are famous for their kimchi and the Yuyòmsa Temple in Kumgang, the Pohyónsa Temple in Myohyangsan and the Taehúngsa Temple in Haenam are also well-known for  their own specialities.

Korea is also known as Tongbangyeùijuguk (the country of courteous people) as not only are gods and ancestors revered but the elderly are honoured too. Kimchi is generally appreciated for its crunchiness, but as old people often suffer from dental and digestive problems special kimchi like suk kkhakdugi and suk nabadji are carefully prepared for them. Vegetables such as radishes are first boiled to soften up, then seasoned with fermented young shrimps and mild ground chilli pepper. This respect for the aged is fundamental in Korean culture and in the past women would even sleep embracing a kimchi jar to create a more gentle fermentation. During the long winters a traditional gift is always given to the aged: it is a special white porcelain jar of kamdongjòtmu kimchi  respectfully offered  with homemade rice wine, as a sign of filial piety.

Childbearing is considered the happiest family event and pregnant women follow the most virtuous ways during this time as behaviour is believed to have a direct effect on the foetus. Mothers-to-be only eat special kimchi called jong kkakdugi carefully made of only the very best ingredients. Each vegetable is cut into perfect cubes or slices to ensure the sound body and mind of the child.

In Korea tradition and courtesy are reflected in all behaviour codes including table etiquette which envisages the correct position for each bowl, plate, receptacle and chopsticks on the table, with hot foods served on the left and cold on the right. Koreans have a different table setting for each season showing recognition and respect for nature. There should always be at least two or three kinds of kimchi for each meal; four or five would be better.


Kimchi can be classified by methods, main ingredients, seasons and regions. It is found both in Arctic and tropical zones where history and geography have intertwined with natural conditions (as in Italy) to give birth to the many distinctive regional cuisines of Korea. Kimchi is an essentially  regional food. The central Kyònggi-do region (Seoul) is influenced by the royal culinary tradition and food tends to be rather aristocratic, with much attention paid to precision cutting. Here we have wrapped kimchi, pheasant kimchi, tongchimi and ginseng susam nabaki. In the south-western Chòlla–do region,where high quality fruit and fine sea foods abound, we find persimmon as well as green laver and wild lettuce kimchi. The predominant flavour tends to be intense and savoury owing to the high quantities of chotkal and chilli pepper seasoning. The coldest and most remote region is Hamgyòng-do where kimchi is very mild and juicy. Indigenous fish are widely used to prepare flatfish kimchi made with rice gruel, codfish, radish and bean sprouts kimchi which are recognized typical foods.

For convenience kimchi could be divided roughly into usual and unusual varieties and four of each will be listed.

  1. The most common is spicy baechu kimchi made of whole, halved, quartered or shredded Chinese cabbage ( so-called Korean) with red pepper paste and threads, watercress (nothing like the English kind) green onions and fermented shrimps.

  2. Khakdugi is made of large white radish cut into cubes and seasoned similarly to the above.

  3. Oi sobaegi is stuffed cucumber kimchi with green onions, wild leek, salted fermented small shrimp, chilli pepper powder, garlic and ginger.

  4. Ssam is a complex wrapped kimchi of chestnuts, abalone, oysters, Indian mustard leaves, pine nuts, pyogo mushrooms, manna lichen (rare rock mushrooms)seasoned with chilli pepper and salted fermented croaker fish wrapped up in large cabbage leaves.

Among the unusual types:

  1. Susam nabakji made of ginseng root (4-5 years old). This simple white-coloured kimchi is very juicy and is made with white radish, cucumber and Korean pear. No spices.

  2. Yuja Tongchimi is a juicy citron and radish kimchi made with pear and thickened with glue plant. It is  flavoured only with  Indian  mustard leaves, ginger and  whole hot green peppers

  3. Kamkimchi is a fruit kimchi made mainly of Korean persimmons and green thread onions flavoured with chilli pepper powder.

  4. Sòngnyukimchi is known as ‘pomegranate kimchi’ although it contains none. The name comes from the shape of the thick slices of white radish cut crisscross at regular intervals which is half enclosed in a cabbage leaf. Pear, chestnuts, watercress, garlic, manna lichen (rare rock mushroom) and ginger are cut into julienne strips with green onion threads and  stuffed the slits.

The basic categories of kimchi ingredients are:

  1. Raw vegetables: Chinese cabbage (Brassica pekinesis), radish, wild lettuce, leek, cucumber, soy beans and sprouts, mustard leaf (which produces a beautiful purple colour).

  2. Fresh fruits and nuts: apple, pears, persimmons, peanuts, pine nuts, sesame seeds.

  3. Cereals and starch gruel: barley, wheat, glutinous rice gruel and glue plant or potato  starch water.

Ingredients can be virtually innumerable but seasoning is the first priority in kimchi making, as it not only enhances the taste and flavour, it is vital to the storage life. It is interesting to note that Yangnyeom, the word for seasoning which literally comes from the Chinese means ‘keep in mind it is medicine’. To prepare kimchi and marinate fish, coarse bay salt known as horyeom as well as  t’aech a boiled salt concentrate is employed. Ground chilli pepper is classified  as coarse, medium and fine and as mild, medium and very spicy. Generally the coarse variety is used but all three strengths go to season kimchi. The amount of time vegetables are left to salt is extremely important as well as the length of time and speed of fermentation which evidently influence the characteristics of the finished product. A bright red paste made of ground chillies with glutinous rice, dried barley sprouts, maeju and salt water is commonly used.  Dried chilli pepper cut extremely finely into threads is often added to provide a colourful tone and tang to kimchi soups and stews.

At an upmarket department store in Seoul I was astounded at the sight (and smell) of endless counters displaying giant vats of an extraordinary variety of fermented fish of bright shades of scarlet from which a very distinctive aroma emanated. As Korea is surrounded by sea on three sides, the presence of fish (fresh and preserved) is predominant: mackerel, sea bream and yellow corvina as well as abalone, squid, oysters, clams, shrimp and mussels abound. Chotkal, made of fermented fish and shellfish is a significant ingredient.  In southern regions it is made of anchovies, abalone and octopus while in northern regions yellow croaker( micropogonias undulates - similar to red snapper), oysters and shrimp are more popular.  The climatic differences of these two regions also play a part in affecting the taste of kimchi: the hotter the weather, the hotter the kimchi will be as chilli is used in abundance in the hotter climates to prevent the kimchi from becoming rancid.

Kimchi differs radically from all other fermented foods in the world and is the only fermented food which represents the core of a nation's cuisine. Like rice or pasta, kimchi is a foundation food that incorporates many other foods, flavours and consistencies. It is said that kimchi satisfies every palate as it incorporate five tastes, sweet, sour, salty, bitter and piquant. Five is a number of symbolical significance in Korean philosophy and correct kimchi should also incorporate five colours.

Kimchi is also the essential ingredient of several dishes such as kimchi-jjigae (stew), kimchi-guk (soup) or kimchi-jun (Korean potato pancake) and fried rice. Today with fusion cuisine so fashionable, kimchi is turning up unexpectedly in hamburgers, pizza and hotdogs. Sushi leaves the Koreans cold as they prepare their own rice rolled in green seaweed laver with kimchi, of course.

Kimchi is also supposed to be an excellent antidote for drunkenness and an ice cold beverage made from the tongchimi variety is supposed to be good for headaches. Kimchi always brings cheerfulness, I am told, and instead of saying ‘cheese’ for a snapshot in Korea guess what they say? Glamorous girls are also known as ‘kimchi girls’.

It has been said that Korean women can make kimchi out of anything edible; a concept which extends towards infinite possibilities as there is the ‘right kimchi for the right food’. The Kimchi Foundation has classified over a hundred different versions showing a wide range of gastronomic experiences varying from the light refreshing tang of Mul kimchi with almost no seasoning or spices found especially in the north to the several explosive varieties of the south.

In 2001 kimchi standards were officially defined by the Codex Alimentarius. Styles, ingredients, colour and texture are listed in a three-page document in order to protect this food from being taken over by the aggressive Japanese who developed a copy of kimchi which costs less and exports extremely well. As the Koreans were more than worried, they appealed to the W.H.O. and F.A.O. This is an international trade issue which began with the dispute in 1996 when ‘kimuchi’ was proposed by the Japanese to be the official food of the Olympics at Atlanta. This attempt at gastronomic imperialism is a sore point for the Koreans who are still sensitive about the Japanese occupation of 1910-1945.

As everywhere in the world advancing technology and  the reduced time factor have brought radical changes in food traditions and kimchi jars are fast disappearing from back yards in the cities. In Korea  today ordinary fridges are equipped with a kimchi compartment and recently, refrigeration techniques have developed to meet modern needs and the  new special kimchi fridge rates high as the most desirable appliance for the family. This is strictly an urban phenomenon as the country towns and villages still preserve in the traditional jar. Although industry mass produces several varieties of kimchi and supermarkets sell enormous amounts, hand made kimchi is, still gimjang, a family-group tradition transmitted through the generations.

Kimchi differs radically from other fermented foods like sauerkraut , as it has  biochemical, nutritional, and organoleptic properties as well as  health-related functions. The biochemical nature of this particular fermentation  is initiated by various micro-organisms originally present in the raw materials, but is gradually dominated by lactic acid bacteria. Numerous physio-chemical and biological factors influence the fermentation, growth, and sequential appearance of principal micro-organisms involved in the process. The complex biochemical changes depend on all environmental conditions before, during, and after fermentation, producing specific nutritious qualities. I would like to emphasize that Korean kimchi is a highly varied, versatile, inexpensive, low calorie and low cholesterol food. Moreover it is considered to be one of the healthiest foods containing high amounts of vitamin C, calcium, lactic bacteria and natural antibiotic substances. An impressive range of kimchi have grown increasingly popular in the Americas, Asia and the Middle East, Europe and even in Australia, making kimchi an internationally renowned food.

Kimchi reflects the global spread of Korean culture, and illustrates the distances within the Koreas.  In fact, a ‘World Kimchi Fair’is being  planned which envisages cooperation between the North and South Korean Ministries of Culture. Throughout the country, cities, towns and villages hold traditional harvest time events such as kimchi festivals, fairs and kimchi making contests. Kimchi should be considered as the foundation of Korean cuisine, a culinary substrate rather than a single food and its central importance is reflected in dedicated institutions such as the Kimchi Foundation, a Kimchi Research Institute, kimchi science departments in all colleges as well as two specialized museums. Kimchi is so fundamental to the Korean diet that the National Aerospace Research Institute even developed a special space kimchi for the first astronaut from Seoul to eat in outer space on the Russian space ship Soyuz! 

Kimchi represents Korean identity. It is much more than a food, it is a philosophy.

Kimchi symbolizes the Korean way of life.