If there’s one thing I know for sure about Korean culture, it’s that that kimchi plays a big part in Korean identity. Kimchi is the staple food in Korea. French have their baguettes, Canadians have their poutine (?), Koreans have their kimchi.
Even though I was predominantly raised in an English Canadian environment, I still ate Korean food day in and day out, particularly Kimchi. For my family, it didn’t matter what else was in our fridge – if there was no kimchi, there was no food.
Kimchi is essentially fermented cabbage seasoned with a lot of different and often mismatched ingredients. Making kimchi is a labour intensive PROCESS (if anyone ever says making kimchi is easy, they’re liars and you shouldn’t trust them).
Growing up on traditional Korean food, especially kimchi, reorientated my palette to always yearn for something spicy, sour and salty (my holy trinity of food). I remember when I was on a backpacking trip across Italy, it was the first time that Korean food was not readily accessible. Mid-way through my trip, I stayed at a Korean homestay where they of course served Korean food including kimchi. After eating gelato and pizza everyday for two weeks or so (which for the record was not terrible) my tastebuds bursted with joy at the taste of my sour spicy kimchi.
Where did it all begin?
It’s strange to think that even though I’ve eaten this food everyday of my life, I have barely any idea of just exactly how it made it onto my plate. So where does kimchi’s story begin?
Back in the day, people did not have the luxury of a fridge to keep their food fresh and durable. Actually before the 1960s, Korean people didn’t event have much food to eat in the first place, let alone keep fresh. Koreans needed to store vegetables for the winter especially their greens, which was hard to grow during the country’s harsh winters. So, in order to preserve their food they discovered the method of fermentation. Cabbage would be dipped in salt inside a pottery jar then buried underground, to be eaten for longer periods of time.
A Brief Timeline
-57 B.C.E – 668 C.E (The Three Kingdoms) – Early kimchi consisted of radishes dipped in paste or salted in brine. Red peppers did not exist yet.
-918 – 1392 (Koryeo Period) – Imports of more vegetables, including Chinese cabbage, as well as garlic and spices.
-1392 – 1910 (The Joseon Dynasty) – Chilli peppers was introduced to Korea through the Japanese invasion in 1592 – 1598, and found its way into the kimchi making process. Animal protein was slowly added to kimchi, including fermented fish in 1803. Whole cabbage kimchi (most commonly known today) was invented after 1800 C.E.
(Zenkimchi has a more detailed account of kimchi’s history, if you’d like to know more!)
So, why is kimchi so important?
There are many reasons why kimchi is so important: it’s rich historical background, it’s ties to Korean identity, and it’s ties to communal relationships.
In an NPR article published in August 2016, it states that:
There are hundreds of different varieties of kimchi in Korea, and about 1.5 million tons of it is consumed each year. Even the Korean stock market reflects this obsession: The “Kimchi Index” tracks when Napa cabbage and the 12 other ingredients — chilli, carrots, radishes and anchovies among them — are at their best prices.
Although I didn’t know specially about the “Kimchi Index”, I’m not at all surprised. There’s even something called “Kimjang” which is when neighbourhoods literally come together to make kimchi. I’m talking about hundreds of cabbages being chopped, salted, washed, marinated and neatly folded in huge clay pots – all in that order – by a group of (mostly) Korean women.
All the way from grandmothers, mothers to young daughters, Kimjang was – and is still – an activity done for the collective purpose of everyone contributing and taking a piece of what they made together. Although I’ve never been apart of a Kimjang as big as the one mentioned, I do help my mom whenever we conduct our own mini Kimjang (only about 20 cabbages or so). According to the article, UNESCO added the tradition of Kimjang to its representative list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity.
For me, kimchi is one of the links to my Korean identity. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I sometimes feel quite disconnected from the place I was born. But every time I take a bite of kimchi, I’m reminded that I do come from this very unique place of culture.
Kimchi is also a taste of home. It’s the food that my mom made for me since I was a baby, and it’s the food that I eventually helped my mom make as I grew up. For me, kimchi is like little bread crumbs that lead me home – only instead of bread crumbs, they’re soggy bits of red fermented cabbage.
If you can’t get kimchi off your brain, I also suggest reading this BBC article on Korea’s efforts to boost our national dish!