The history of Kimchi is the history of the Korean people themselves. Today, you can find Kimchi everywhere you go on the Korean peninsula. While hundreds of recipes exist for this staple, the heart of the dish remains the same — and its many variations speak to the versatility of the Korean people. Each recipe balances the traditional Five Elements, or flavors, or bitter, salty, sour, spicy, and sweet — a balance that is found across Korean life and history as well.
But where did Kimchi come from? How has it come to stand as such a symbol for Korea?
Kimchi During the Three Kingdoms
Most people think of cabbage when they think of Kimchi. But the earliest Kimchis, made between 57 B.C.E. and 668 C.E., didn't use cabbage at all. Instead, they most consisted of brined radishes that were sometimes dipped in soybean paste. In fact, the Korean people at this time ate a lot of fermented vegetables, a fact that's mentioned in contemporaneous histories of the time.
Why all the fermenting? Because there were no refrigerators. Fermenting and pickling foods was a great way to store them safely. Korean women made Kimchi during the winter, burying their fermenting vegetables in onggi, which were brown ceramic pots. Because it gets very cold during Korean winters, this method of food preservation meant people could eat during the winter.
And as Buddhism spread throughout Korean during this era, more and more people turned to vegetarian eating, which made Kimchi all the more popular.
Kimchi Becomes More Interesting: The Koryeo Era
Between 918 and 1392, during the Koryeo period, more types of vegetables started to make their way to the Korean peninsula through trade across Asia. Now we start to see mentions of the Chinese cabbage that most people associate with Kimchi today. In addition, large mushrooms, cucumbers, leeks, bamboo shoots, and mustard leaf brought all the way from India began to be turned into Kimchi. No spicy Kimchi existed yet, because the spices needed were still across an ocean — but the "juicy" style of Kimchi became popular.
We can see signs that Kimchi was already a staple throughout the region in the literature of the period. Famed poet Lee Kuy-bo wrote about Kimchi: "Pickled radish slices make a good summer side-dish. Radish preserved in salt is a winter side-dish from start to end." His poem goes on to praise the sweet, fruity taste of Kimchi harvested from the ground during the winter.
Spices Come to Korea: Kimchi in the Joseon Dynasty
Do you think of Kimchi as a spicy dish? Then thank the Portuguese traders who first brought hot peppers to Korea from the Americas in the early 1600s. During this era also, soy sauce was used to preserve vegetables, ending the previous reliance on salt.
More variety started to flood in to the making of Kimchi during these years as well, as Korea began to open its door to countries other than China. Some Kimchi makers began to experiment with animal proteins, adding pheasant and fish to their recipes. Cucumbers and eggplant also made an appearance, as did a variety of new sauces, including anchovy sauce in the north and fermented shrimp sauce in the south.
And then there were the chiles. The heavy use of red chile peppers totally changed both the way Kimchi looked and tasted and the way it was fermented. By the 1800s, Kimchi started to taste more like what we expect when we order it today, complete with napa cabbage. In fact, recipes for Kimchi from the late 1800s look very much like today's recipes.
Kimchi has spread all over the world today, in part because of its sheer versatility and because its five flavors are so very satisfying. Yes, different cuisines all around the world serve salted vegetables, but only Kimchi combines chiles, garlic, ginger, onions, and fish sauce to create its distinctive, immediately recognizable flavor. And only Kimchi provides the health benefits that come with eating fermented foods that maximize healthy bacteria (lactobacilli) and minimize nutrient loss. With more than 200 types of Kimchi available today, you can find a variation that makes your own taste buds sing with joy.
Copyright Vermont Fermenters 2019