If you ask, “What is the Korean food that Koreans can’t live without?” I am sure a lot of people (both Koreans and foreigners) will say “Kimchi”. Kimchi (김치 – fermented vegetables) is one of the staple food of Koreans – you can always find kimchi as one of the side dishes on the tables in most Korean families and restaurants in South Korea. Kimchi can indeed be considered as one of the national symbols of South Korea. Moreover, in South Korea, when taking photos, Koreans say “Kimchi” to make people smile (the equivalence of saying “Cheese” in English). In this blog post, let’s talk about some interesting things about kimchi, including kimchi being used as a theme in Korean pop culture like TV drama and pop song.
What is Kimchi?
Kimchi is a fermented dish generally made from Chinese cabbage or radish seasoned with salt, garlic, green onions, ginger, red pepper and shellfish. It is considered as one of the healthiest food in the world by the US Health magazine – it is low in calories and cholesterol, high in fiber and richer in vitamins than apples. Due to the fermentation process, kimchi contains a number of organic acids which help sterilize the digestive tract and improve digestion.
Foreigners tend to think that kimchi is definitely a spicy food as red pepper is one of the key ingredients of kimchi. There are in fact over 300 varieties of kimchi including spicy ones fermented in red pepper, garlic and onions and non-spicy ones soaked in salt water. Actually Koreans did not know about red pepper until the late 16th century or early 17 century when Portuguese traders based in Japan introduced it to Korea. Before that, kimchi was just vegetables soaked in salt water. Kimchi seasoned with red pepper first appeared in a cookbook printed in 1765. The addition of red pepper not only enhances the taste of kimchi and keeps it crunchy like fresh ones but also enhances the nutritional value of kimchi as red pepper contains a lot of vitamins.
How to Preserve Kimchi?
Kimchi should be stored at a low and stable temperature to preserve its flavour and crunchiness. The traditional way is to put kimchi into clay crocks buried in the ground. Nowadays, in South Korea, as most people live in apartments, most families store kimchi in kimchi refrigerators which are designed with specific temperature controls to ensure small temperature gap within the storage room and prevent humidity from being drawn out of the food. Kimchi refrigerators are manufactured only in Korea.
How to Eat or Make Kimchi?
There are many ways of eating kimchi – it can be eaten alone or with rice, or it can be used as one of the key ingredients for other dishes like kimchi jigae (김치찌개 – a hot spicy stew with kimchi and pork), kimchi jeon (김치전 – Korean-style kimchi pancake), and kimchi bokkeumbap (김치볶음밥 – kimchi fried rice).
Kimchi as a Theme in Korean Pop Culture
In the Korean TV drama, Immortal Classic (불후의 명작), the K-pop singer, Alexander, sings the “Kimchi Song” which is a pretty cute song. You can watch this video to enjoy the song – there are English subtitles to help you understand the meaning and romanized lyrics to help you sing along. Immortal Classic is a kimchi-themed drama in which two families compete in a cooking competition. You can watch the trailers of this drama by clicking the links below:
The Gimjiang Culture
It is believed that kimchi originated from the need to eat vegetables to get the necessary vitamins in the cold winter. In the past, as it was difficult to find vegetables in the cold winter, Koreans made kimchi which could be stored throughout the winter to provide vegetables for themselves.
Gimjiang (김장) is a traditional Korean seasonal event involving family members and neighbours in which massive quantities of kimchi (called gimjiang kimchi) are made for the coldest months of winter. The gimjiang culture of making and sharing kimchi has been registered on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity List since December 2013. Usually gimjiang kimchi is made in late November and early December at the onset of the winter when fresh vegetables (usually cabbages and radish) are still available.
In the past, gimjiang was a community event in which people living in the same neighbourhood gathered in groups to make kimchi together and as many as 100-200 heads of cabbages could be made into kimchi. Nowadays, although gimjiang is still a big community event in the rural areas, in the urban areas with much lesser living space, each family makes its own kimchi with a much smaller amount, for example, 20-30 heads of cabbages made into kimchi for a family of five, but volunteers may still gather together to make large quantities of kimchi for the needy. You may see in some Korean dramas that mothers/mothers-in-law and daughters/daughters-in-law making kimchi together at home. However, as kimchi can now be easily bought in the supermarkets and people are busy with their work, home-made kimchi is not as common as it was in the past. Nevertheless, you may still see in some Korean dramas that a caring mother delivers kimchi made by her to the home of her son/daughter who is busy working.
Want to Know More About Kimchi?
There is a kimchi museum called “Kimchikan” (김치간) located in Insadong in Seoul where you can get more information on kimchi through exhibition and hands-on activities. For example, you can learn the process of making kimchi through interactive digital games. You can watch the exhibition of different types of kimchi and pickled vegetables from around the world. You can also try to make kimchi yourselves and take the kimchi made by you home as a souvenir. The museum also provides audio guides in English, Chinese and Japanese to help visitors who do not know Korean. You can get more information on “Kimchikan” (including how to get there) by looking at this webpage.
How to enjoy the Korean kimchi culture? One good way is to eat or make kimchi while listening to the “Kimchi Song” or watching the Korean TV drama, Immortal Classic. Or if you visit Seoul next time, don’t forget to visit the kimchi museum, “Kimchikan”. Enjoy! 🙂
Reminder: The next blog post will be published on 28 April 2015. Watch this space!
Related Blog Posts
“Hansik (Korean Food) Series – Interesting things about Korean food and eating” dated 31 March 2015
“Hansik (Korean Food) Series – Bibimbap” dated 2 April 2015
“Hansik (Korean Food) Series – Bulgogi” dated 9 April 2015
“Hansik (Korean Food) Series – Samgyeopsal” dated 14 April 2015
“Hansik (Korean Food) Series – Samgyetang‘ dated 16 April 2015
“Hansik (Korean Food) Series – Korean Table Manners” dated 21 April 2015
“Hansik (Korean Food) Series – Chimaek (Fried Chicken and Beer)” dated 28 April 2015
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