Photo credit: http://seoulsync.com/

The many avatars of Kimchi. Photo credit: seoulsync.com

As not only a delicious cuisine from preserved food, but also an iconic food of the Korean Peninsula, Kimchi boasts millions of fans across the atlas. As a great admirer of Kimchi myself, I always feel unhesitant to invite people and advocate the fascination of the fermented side dish at any meal with a head of my homemade cabbage Kimchi.

Why does Kimchi appeal to worldwide fans regardless of region, cultural difference and even race?

Once, a guest of mine suggested that Kimchi has the magic to attract people by its delicious looks and wonderful flavor, not to mention the healthy ingredients. Sure, it is the right answer, but behind it, there is a wisdom that seeks attention.

The patience that goes into the preparation is not the only intriguing things about it, but also the communal efforts, known as Kimjang or Gimjang, now declared a UNESCO intangible heritage. Kimjang translates to shared labour by womenfolk to preserve vegetables into Kimchi.

Origin

It is widely known that ancient methods of food preservation were drying, salting, and fermentation. Grains, fruit, nuts and berries are easy to preserve without much effort, but perishables such as meat, fish, and vegetables need drying and saltation for preservation. Salting helps not only preservation of vitamin sources but also self-fermentation of potentially pathogenic organisms, in which the propagation of halophilous bacteria produces helpful enzymes such as essential amino and lactic acids during fermentation.

So in this process, any living cell would become hydrated through osmosis and prevent the creation of saprogenic bacteria. This ancient wisdom of food preservation has given birth to a number of peculiar ethnic foods with various available preserved and fermented vegetables such as Zha Cai in China, Sauerkraut, Winßraut in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, and Kimchi in Korea.

Korean Kimchi is known for its spicy taste with chilly pepper and fish sauce, but until the 18th century, it was not so. Chilly pepper, which originated in Mexico, was introduced to the Korean Peninsula in the 16th century, and the populace added the ground chilly pepper to Kimchi along with other regional spice ingredients such as ginger, spring onion, leek, garlic, rubia, and so on.

Ingredients and process

The common ingredients used in the Kimchi making process. Photo credit: opb.org

The common ingredients used in the Kimchi making process. Photo credit: opb.org

The known major ingredients for Kimchi can be classified into four edible sources: vegetables, spices or herbs, fish sauce and other raw ingredients. Vegetables used in Kimchi are usually leaf and root, but may vary according to seasons and regions. It makes sense that Kimchi takes seasonally-available vegetables and other ingredients, which could be most of vegetables you can name.

With the help of natural fermentation in traditional jars, Kimchi becomes an available food source in winters when there is scarcity of fresh vitamin sources.

Traditionally, spices and herbs added to Kimchi were the ones locally available. But more recently, people have started using Kimchi with red chilly peppers. Scientifically speaking, the use of red chilly pepper has actually proven to be a smarter method than other ones without, since it effectively encourages and controls fermentation process.

Fish sauce provides a lot of benefits — control of fermentation, taste, and nutrients such as amino acids and protein, and is made using fish both from sea and freshwater, such as shrimps and shellfish. Even though not every Kimchi has fish sauce, it is believed that its sensible use should guarantee much more creative outcomes in both taste and nutrition.

Cabbage field

A cabbage field in South Korea. Photo credit: Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea

According to Dr. Kim and Mr. Lee in their book, Kimchigyunmunrok, the Travel with Kimchi, it takes five stages to produce delicious Kimchi.

Farmers in Korea believe that the nature bears their harvest, so many households grow vegetables with devotion.

After harvesting fresh vegetables, womenfolk or neighbors gather at yards to clean, trim, and preserve ingredients for Kimchi. They would have already prepared or bought fish sauce. It is essential for them to work collectively so that they save labor and time. Koreans are proud of their agrarian society since they share common labor and help each other out for a good purpose — in this case, kimchi making. The spirit of Kimjang dictates that they share life together from planting to dining.

A family is making Kimchi at homeImage Source : Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea

A family is making Kimchi at home. Photo credit: Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea

Now the process of  storing and fermenting in jars takes place. The fermentation could go from three days to a year, depending upon taste. During this process, which takes place either underground or under a shade, an optimum temperature of 2 to 8 degrees Celsius is maintained. If not done so, temperature change may provoke uneven taste and sometimes decay.

Temperature control is delicate work. While clay pots stay under shade most days, a number of households wisely relocate their pots to much cooler and stable locations such as mountain pits and caves or build straw shelters over them in extreme weather conditions.

A grandmother opens a Kimchi pot. Photo credit: Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea

A grandmother opens a Kimchi pot. Photo credit: Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea

Epilogue

As I explained, Kimjang requires a large number of participants, and is a fairly patient and lengthy process. For this reason, there is a concern that the spirit of Kimjang has somewhat weakened in villages. The villages in South Korea have been experiencing exodus of inhabitants to cities for education, work, and an urban lifestyle since the mid 20th century.

Naturally, elderly citizens left in their villages struggle to share the tradition of Kimjang. In the current generation, Kimjang may only refer to a very limited activity of family chores to make small amounts of Kimchi at home. But the majority of Korean citizens have not changed their dietary habits and appetite. It is not surprising that refrigeration products for preserving Kimchi in any South Korean electronic stores, sell quite well.

A modern-day 'kimchi refrigerator'. Photo credit: heraldk

A modern-day ‘kimchi refrigerator’. Photo credit: heraldk

These ‘kimchi refrigerators’ have replaced the old jars that have been traditionally used in urban houses and apartments. In this way, one might argue that Kimchi may not be the outcome of Kimjang anymore, since only one or two refrigerators store family servings. I also doubt how artificial refrigeration from refrigerators would secure the science of fermentation that the old pots provide.

I strongly suggest that Kimjang should find its meaning from the conservation of old methods and spirit. Regardless of our current lifestyle and location, if we practice Kimjang with the purchase of local harvests, we can begin building a sense of community, we can preserve tradition. Likewise, the more people make Kimchi together, the deeper they understand and love each other.

This is how I think Kimjang is a great folk culture to recommend to the rest of world.

Reference

Kim, M., & Lee, G. (2008). Kimchigyunmunrok. Seoul, Korea: Designhouse.

UNESCO World Heritage. (2013). Retrieved July 26, 2016, from http://english.cha.go.kr/english/world_heritage_new/intangible_treasure_16.jsp?mc=EN_04_02

Kimjang, making and sharing kimchi in the Republic of Korea. (2013). Retrieved July 26, 2016, from http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/en/RL/kimjang-making-and-sharing-kimchi-in-the-republic-of-korea-00881

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As not only a delicious cuisine from preserved food, but also an iconic food of the Korean Peninsula, Kimchi boasts millions of fans across the atlas. As a great admirer of Kimchi myself, I always feel unhesitant to invite people and advocate the fascination of the fermented side dish at any...