I like my kimchi a little on the fresher side, when the vegetables are crunchy and the fermentation has just set in. The crunchy, sour, spicy explosion that hits my mouth when I bite into kimchi is like a little piece of Korea. As a Cuban-Italian-American who has not yet been to Korea (gasp!), it’s hard to call myself an authority on Korean cuisine or culture. Despite this, when I bite into kimchi, I can picture my Korean alter ego with her grandmother in traditional Korean dress discussing the health benefits of kimchi. Really, I can see it.
Kimchi is fermented vegetables, most frequently including Napa cabbage, radish, carrot, scallion, red chili pepper, fish sauce, and garlic. In a U.S. Korean restaurant, kimchi will be one of the banchan (small side dishes) that is brought to your table before your meal; it also features prominently in a number of main dishes, such as kimchi stew, kimchi fried rice, and kimchi pancakes. In fusion cuisine, kimchi has topped hot dogs, pizza, and even French fries.
Today, kimchi is serious business as evidenced by what I call the “Kimchi Wall” at the NJ-based supermarket chain, H-Mart. If you have never been to an H-Mart, you need to go, if for no other reason than to see the Kimchi Wall. Who knew that there were more types of kimchi at H-Mart than types of cereal at Stop and Shop? [The closest H-Mart to Fairfield County is in Westchester, but it’s worth the trip.]
When did kimchi become so prominent in Korean cuisine? The story of kimchi is as complex as its flavors. It spans hundreds of years with cultural, historical, and political currents running through it.
Historical texts place fermented vegetables and pickle jars in the early ADs during the “three kingdoms” period when the kingdoms of Baekje, Goguryeo, and Silla dominated the peninsula and parts of Manchuria and Russia. [The name Korea comes from Goryeo, a more modern name for the kingdom Goguryeo.]
The references to fermented vegetables and pickling jars in ancient documents imply that kimchi must have been common enough to mention. There is even a 13th century poem about pickled radishes, which reminds me of the opera song about hot yoga. There truly is such a song; my friend performed it on a barge in Brooklyn, but that’s another topic.
Less clear is when chili pepper entered the scene. Chili peppers, native to the Americas, could not have been used until after the discovery of the New World. Some sources place the addition of chili peppers in kimchi as early as the 1500s when Japan invaded Korea, apparently bringing chili peppers with them from their trade with Portuguese merchants.
Some opponents to this theory (most notably the authors of a paper in the Journal of Ethnic Foods), clearly stirred up by the political undercurrents of who can claim “ownership” to kimchi, vehemently deny that the Japanese had anything to do with Korea’s national dish. No proof exists, they state, that the Japanese introduced chili peppers to Korea.
Others cite the 1700s for the introduction of the chili pepper by Portuguese missionaries. The Portuguese really got around!
Whether kimchi is different than Chinese paochai (Chinese pickled vegetables) is another source of debate. Again, political undercurrents seem to prevail here with some camps vehemently denying any cultural, culinary, linguistic or other connection between them.
China too is caught up in kimchi politics. It passed regulations in 2012 that ban certain levels of lactic acid bacteria (present in higher levels in kimchi than paochai), which make the export of kimchi products nearly impossible. In 2017, things heated up with Chinese nationalists vowing to abstain from eating kimchi following South Korea’s acceptance of an American anti-ballistic missile defense system.
Korea has also protested Japanese production of kimchi, citing that the Japanese version (kimuchi) is not fermented! Korea even lobbied for a new international trade standard to define kimchi. Can’t we all just get along, maybe over a soju and a pickling jar of kimchi?
Speaking of trade, did you know that you can buy special kimchi refrigerators? Commercially available since the mid-1990s, these refrigerators are designed to provide the right temperature, humidity, and air circulation for kimchi fermentation, and ensure longer storage times than standard refrigerators.
In fact, in a marketing study of Korean households, a kimchi refrigerator was the most wanted device! Hmmm, I wonder if you can get one at Costco.
Okay, I googled it and yes, yes you can get a kimchi refrigerator at Costco. Also Best Buy. And Amazon. If anyone reading this has a kimchi refrigerator, please please please invite me over to see it!
Clearly, kimchi comes in many sizes, forms, and containers, including “in a sack” like the ones I saw at H-Mart. Kimchi is also more than a side dish, often the star of a main dish in traditional Korean meals and in fusion cuisine. Below are some of my favorite kimchi dishes at local area restaurants, including a few unusual but genius combinations.
• Kimchi pizza at Brewport in Bridgetport, CT. Called the Barrett, this pizza comes with Korean BBQ pulled pork, and a side of kimchi that you can pile on the top. It blew my mind the first time I had it. Ask your server to help pair it with a brew. Heaven.
• Kimchi Fries at Bull Pan in Stamford, CT. Literally fries with a choice of pork or beef and kimchi on top, the Kimchi Fries at Bull Pan were a delicious surprise. The fries were crisp, even under the pile of meat and kimchi, and the spicy flavors were delicious.
• Kimchi Stew at Han Bat in Palisades Park, NJ. Called Kimchi Chigae, this is a delicious melt-in-your-mouth stew where kimchi is the star. Okay, I know this one is a little far for Fairfield County-ers, but it’s only about an hour drive with easy parking compared to Koreatown in NYC, so consider it.
• Kimchi samples at H-Mart, various locations. You have to go see the kimchi wall. Sometimes there are kimchi samples too. Just go. Please.
When I go to a Korean restaurant, I typically ask if the restaurant makes its own kimchi. I will now follow that up with a request to tour the restaurant’s kimchi refrigerator. I will also try to stay away from the Kimchi politics!
Follow me on Instagram to see more pictures of some of the dishes mentioned in this piece and to stay tuned for my next update, which may include a kimchi face off!