One of the first things that comes to mind when talking about Korean cuisine in kimchi (김치), which is pickled vegetables. By far the most well-known variety is cabbage kimchi or baechu kimchi (배추김치), which is Napa cabbage soaked in brine, and mixed with chili paste, onions, etc.1 Sometimes it is sliced into smaller bites called sseon kimchi (썬김치). If you go to a restaurant, or buy it in a store, most likely you’ll see this kind of kimchi, though I have also purchased radish kimchi as well. This website has a very nice summary of the most common types of kimchi.
Korean friends I grew up with often told me that each household has their own recipe for kimchi, and indeed many homes in Korea have separate refrigerators for storing Kimchi because it’s often made in batches during a certain time of the year when vegetables are harvested. Interesting fact: according to Wikipedia, the spiciness of kimchi comes from Europeans who brought red peppers from Central America in the 15th century (presumably by the Spanish).2 Before that, it was just pickled vegetables. 😉
Kimchi is very often served in Korean meals as a side dish. For example, for my birthday, my wife and I wanted Korean food, so we took our daughter to our favorite Korean restaurant in Seattle. Regardless of what we order, we are always treated with a large array of side-dishes:
…and one or two dishes include kimchi. In this photo, the center dish was the kimchi.
I have strange eating habits too. I tend to eat Japanese natto and Korean kimchi sometimes for breakfast with rice and coffee. Natto is fermented soy beans, and has a lot of health benefits, while kimchi is pure fermented vegetables, so it has a lot of fiber and vitamins. The two are a good, healthy combination in a way, but one problem is sodium. Kimchi, being soaked in brine, is pretty salty, while natto often has salty sauces mixed with it (though not required). So, while it is good to eat lots of natto and kimchi, one should still watch their sodium intake.
Speaking of breakfast, a good friend of mine, whom my daughter calls “imo” (“auntie” in Korean, 이모) was even kind enough to make some homemade kimchi for me as a birthday gift recently:
My wife and I enjoyed this batch of kimchi for a week over rice (and natto and coffee) in the mornings. 고맙슴니다누나!!
1 Because of the brine, I believe most versions of kimchi are not actually vegetarian. I tried to figure this out one time at the local asian store. The same company had different types of kimchi and some had shrimp brine in there, and some didn’t.
2 Another interesting fact: in college I learned that the Spanish brought sweet potatoes and pumpkins to Japan during the Warring States Period, which were very useful in mountainous areas where rice didn’t grow well. It helped minimize the risk of famine in such places. Now sweet potatoes and pumpkins (kabocha) are very commonplace in Japan. Likewise, Chinese egg noodles are very commonplace in Western food as “Italian pasta”.