In Praise of Kimchi

Kimchi

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:

Korean Appetizers

…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:

Homemade Kimchi

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”.

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

12 thoughts on “In Praise of Kimchi”

  1. Kimchee is a staple in our household – we have it as a side dish for most meals and often cook meals using kimchee.

    There’s certainly something addicting about it – my daughter, who at once time detested almost all solid foods, has always adored kimchee. And my dad, who usually only eats bulgogi when it comes to Korean foods, downs a jar of my mom’s cucumber kimchee in just a day or two.

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  2. Hi Everyone,

    TWWK: Yeah, I can’t say why, but there is something about it that is really satisfying, even though it’s pungent and salty. Then again, maybe that is why. Your father sounds like a very healthy person. 🙂

    Rurousha: I don’t know if I have an iron stomach, but I guess I do like pungent food (Chinese stinky tofu is too much for me though). I actually didn’t like natto for a long time until my wife convinced me of the health benefits. Adding kimchi was done partly because the two flavors mix well. Drinking with coffee, which is acidic though, maybe isn’t such a good idea. :p

    Cocomino: 日本にはキムチの種類がたくさんあるというのを気づきました。妻の実家に朝ごはんでよく食べています。:)

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  3. Napa cabbage! That is a new word for me. I knew this in the US as bok choy. In Japan, I discovered it is ‘haku sai’ or 白菜. Same word, with slightly altered pronunciation. Whatever the name, it makes great kimchi, and the Japanese are big fans. In Korea, there were no refrigerators in the old days, so kimchi was stored/fermented in huge jars in unheated farm sheds–thus it was made during the cold season. I think people in big cities in Korea store the jars on the balcony of the condo, etc. Riding the trains in Tokyo rush hour, you can tell who had kimchi the night before. For this reason, I would avoid eating it for breakfast! At the risk of raining on the parade, I would also mention that in Shingon Buddhism and many other vajrayana/mahayana traditions, onions, leeks, garlic and the like are forbidden to monks, because they are said to inflame lust/passion (eaten raw) or anger (cooked). So it might be good to check before you offer it to your お坊さんfriends.

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  4. Haha! Live and learn! But I notice that bok choy is called 白菜 in Chinese, while Napa cabbage is 大白菜. In Japan, bok choy is called 青梗菜 or ‘chingensai.’ No wonder I was confused! It is easy to get tangled up in names of plants and animals. To go off on a tangent based on footnote 2: yes, Spanish and or Portuguese brought pumpkins and potatoes to Japan, but they brought them from southeast Asia. Japan already had native potatoes under the generic name ‘imo.’ They called the new ones from southeast Asia ‘Jakarta imo’ (after the city in Indonesia) that has elided to ‘jagaimo’ nowadays. The pumpkin was named for Cambodia/Kampuchea, now elided to ‘kabocha.’

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    1. Hi John,

      Hm, that’s interesting about the origins of pumpkin/potato! I thought potatoes weren’t native to Japan at all, but that was something I learned in college 10+ years ago, so I may be wrong. I updated the footnote a bit to clarify that sweet potatoes (not potatoes in general) were brought to Japan.

      Thanks a lot for the cool facts. 🙂

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  5. Oh, dear! Maybe I caused more confusion! The typical potato that Americans know, the ‘Irish’ potato, for example, was imported to Japan from southeast Asia. It is known as ‘jagaimo.’ Before that, Japan had native potatoes like the satoimo 里芋nagaimo and the like. These are very different from ‘Irish’ or ‘American’ potatoes. The ‘sweet potato’ and yam-like ones (different from the satoimo and nagaimo) I think have been around a long time, either native or imported in ancient times? By the way, the most common ‘jagaimo’ types are the May Queen and the Danshaku (meaning ‘baron’ and related to some ‘baron’ types known in the west). Sorry I was not clear earlier! 🙂

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    1. Ah, nagaimo! yes, that makes sense. That seems like more of a “native” potato, but I definitely recall that sweet-potato/yam are European imports. The rest I am pretty fuzzy on. 😀

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  6. Just thinking of Kimchi makes my mouth water but I can’t eat fermented foods anymore but before I new that I had made some of my own it was pretty good. As I’ve posted before I spent time in Korea a couple years after the war. The Koreans that were in our Army (Katusa’s ) they didn’t receive much of a salary “ but ether did I” But the day after payday when we fell out for morning formation the smell of Kimchi permeated the air. When these guys got paid that was where they headed to the village to have a good meal.

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    1. Hi timetales,

      Thanks for the interesting anecdote. It’s interesting how foods and smells can bring back so many memories like that. Thank you as always for sharing. 🙂

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