Kimchi – Part 1

This is the first in a series of four posts about kimchi. It will be just a quick overview of the food and the series itself. Even if you’re not overly familiar with Korean food, you’ve probably heard about kimchi. But even though most people are familiar with the name, one of the most common questions I get about Korean food from non-Koreans is “what is kimchi?” So I thought it was time to write about it in greater depth.

This first post will just be a general overview of kimchi and my personal experience with it. Next week, I’ll write about my first time making kimchi – so excited – as I’m making baechu kimchi (배추김치, cabbage kimchi which is the most common kind) with friends on Saturday. The third post will explain about the different types of kimchi because it’s not all about cabbage. And finally, I’ll talk about different dishes you can make with kimchi – from kimchi jiggae (김치찌개, kimchi stew) to kimchi poutine (sorry, no Hangul spelling as this is a Canadian-Korean fusion food). Excited yet?

So, what is kimchi?

Basically, it’s a traditional Korean dish of fermented vegetables. The most common one, as I said earlier, is made with napa cabbage but it can be made from – and is made from – several different types of veggies. The modern-day version usually, but not always – see the next point – includes chili pepper powder but this is a fairly recent addition (the last couple hundred years or so) to kimchi.

Is it always spicy?

No! If you can’t eat spicy food – not everyone can so don’t worry – try baek kimchi (백김치, white cabbage kimchi which is made without the chili pepper powder) or dongchimi (동치미, white radish kimchi – fabulous with Korean fried chicken). Both are quite refreshing in the summer and neither are spicy.

Do I like it?

I love kimchi! That is, I love kimchi now. However, the first time I ate kimchi – which was on my first day in Ulsan, I’d never eaten it before I arrived in Korea in 2005 – I didn’t really like it. I didn’t hate it but my love and appreciation of the different types and flavours of kimchi grew over time. I’ve read in several places that it’s an acquired taste and I do agree with that. So if you didn’t like your first bite of kimchi, try it again.

Is it always the same?

No, even if you are just talking about baechu kimchi it will taste different in different restaurants, in different cities, in different countries and at different ages. Different ages, you ask? Kimchi, like a lot of fermented foods, changes in flavour over time. So a one week old kimchi will taste noticeably different from a three-month old kimchi. Don’t believe me? If you live in Toronto, you can see for yourself by ordering a Kimchi Flight at Yakitori Bar (there might be other restaurants you can order something similar but this is the one that comes to mind for me – great kimchi). Compare one-day, two-week and three-month old kimchi in one dish.

Is kimchi vegetarian?

Umm, not entirely. Although I’m quite sure that some people make a completely vegetarian version, most varieties of kimchi includes anchovy sauce and/or other seafood seasonings in the ingredients.

Interested in learning more?

If you are in Korea or planning on traveling to Korea, I highly recommend visiting the Kimchi Museum at Coex (a huge indoor shopping mall and convention centre). You can even make kimchi there. If you’re not in Korea, check out your local Korean grocery store or Korean embassy/consulate/cultural centre as some of them offer kimchi making classes.

Stay tuned next week for lots of pictures from my first kimchi making experience. I’m so excited. ^^

Cindy Zimmer

Live life to the fullest everyday - this is a the philosophy I try to live by and it's taken me on many adventures. I write about Korean culture from a non-Korean perspective as the editor/founder of ATK Magazine and I'm the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF). Previously, I ran a Korean-English language exchange group (in Toronto) for 3 years to stay connected to my three years living in Korea as an English teacher. I love music, film, food and sports and write about 3 of the 4.

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