The Truly Ancient Roots Of Kimchi

It is no secret that kimchi has recently skyrocketed in popularity. Thanks to its sour yet spicy taste, this amazing pickled and fermented cabbage dish has exploded on the international market, going from a classic Korean side to a global favorite. An article for The Fermentation Association states that kimchi sales are on the rise, with SPINS even reporting that U.S. kimchi sales are increasing at a startling pace of 90%. And, despite the fact that other pickled eats, like herring and dill pickles, have long been American favorites, kimchi is already edging these options out. According to the same report, kimchi already consists of 7% of pickle sales nationwide. 

While the international kimchi boom has been a more recent phenomenon, the food itself is not. In fact, kimchi has been around for thousands of years, making it an integral part of Korean culture. UNESCO even declared that this delicious fermented food "forms an essential part of Korean meals, transcending class and regional differences." Considering that the recipe has remained fairly consistent over the years, it also forms a unique cultural link between modern Koreans and those of the past.  

The origins of kimchi

Kimchi has been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years. And, while it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when this delightful dish first came into fruition, there is some evidence indicating that kimchi was invented as far back as 4,000 years ago. Using the historic Korean text titled "Sikyung," or "Book of Odes" as a reference, research published in a 2022 issue of the Journal of Ethnic Foods suggests that kimchi possibly originated around the year 2,000 BCE. Naturally, there exists much academic debate about the accuracy of this number. However, considering that the "Sikyung" was written around 500 BCE, we can conclude that kimchi has been around for quite some time. 

These days, kimchi is consumed because it combines beautifully with dishes ranging from bibimbap to Beyond Burgers. But, in the past, this dish was produced for more practical reasons, as well. Before the days of refrigeration, cooks had to think of creative ways to make ingredients last for as long as possible. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Ethnic Foods explains that most cabbage dishes would only last for days without the use of any additional preservation tactics. However, by pickling and fermenting these cabbages, ancient Koreans were able to extend the shelf life of their produce for months. This was often done by storing kimchi in a jar and burying it beneath the earth during the winter months.

Around the beginnings of the Goryeo Dynasty, people began writing about kimchi

It's likely that, from the moment that kimchi was first invented, cooks began experimenting with new versions of this spicy vegetable dish. Unfortunately, however, people did not spend a lot of time writing about kimchi until the eve of the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). During this time, more texts mentioning this food began to emerge. For example, in one particularly brutal description published around 1075, an author by the name of Kim wrote: "I want to tear a person limb from limb like the way we tear kimchi." Although these words are extremely violent, they also show that Koreans likely tore their kimchi to pieces almost a thousand years ago.

Of course, this description is not the only evidence showing just how long kimchi has been around. Other sources indicate that, during the Goryeo Dynasty, Koreans began elevating their kimchi with ingredients like garlic, radishes, and green onions. During this time, they also likely invented more pickled versions of kimchi. These versions likely included dongchimi, kimchi made with radish water, or nabak-kimchi, prepared with thinly-sliced radishes. Many of the types of kimchi created during this time precluded the more than 200 varieties of this dish that are consumed in Korea today.

Agricultural progress during the Joseon Dynasty allowed new types of kimchi to form

During the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), there was a huge agricultural boom in Korea. Thanks to the increased circulation of written texts, people could share their farming tips, both locally and internationally. This meant not only that key kimchi ingredients became easier to cultivate on a larger scale, but also that international food trading became more common. Thus, more foreign ingredients came to Korea, including soy sauce, chili peppers, and sweet potatoes. 

Naturally, this change in the Korean culinary landscape had major implications for kimchi. For starters, this dish became way more diverse, as local cooks scrambled to add more interesting elements to their recipes. Over time, this phenomenon has likely contributed to the differences in kimchi from one region to the next. On top of that, the arrival of soy sauce paved the way for a new preservation method. As noted by Lotte Plaza Market, some Koreans even began pickling their kimchi in soy sauce, rather than in a classic brine. This would have added even more fermented flavor to the cabbages.

Fish kimchi increased in popularity

Soy sauce was not the only ingredient that transformed kimchi during the Joseon Dynasty. The dish also underwent a major change when cooks began mixing it with fermented seafood, like fresh squid and anchovies. By combining sour kimchi with salty seafood, Koreans were able to enjoy new variations of their preserved veggies, many of which provided a richer, umami flavor. Many of the dishes that resulted from this innovation are still popular today, including types of kimchi that are mixed with dried squid or even fermented in anchovy paste. 

Of course, it is essential to note that fermented seafood in and of itself was not exactly a new ingredient for Joseon-era Koreans. On the contrary, in many respects, Korea was the country that pioneered this unique way of preserving fish. Some records even indicate that fermented fish grew in popularity in the region as early as 57 BCE, when locals discovered that salt could help them keep their catch for longer. This technique was also applied to squid, shrimp, and octopuses — allowing people to enjoy their protein for longer. Thus, when these treats were combined with pickled veggies to create a new iteration of kimchi, it was almost like a logical next step.

Kimchi was passed down from generation to generation

Although written texts about kimchi were able to facilitate the spread of new methods, it is important to keep in mind that, for most of history, there were no kimchi cookbooks. On the contrary, kimchi recipes were mostly passed down from older family members to younger ones. As a team of food scientists explained in their piece for the Journal of Ethnic Foods, "Because the information exchanges/means of communication that we use today did not exist in the past, the unique recipe for kimchi was passed down from generation to generation." As a result, the process of making kimchi at home connects many Koreans to their older relatives, and even ancestors. 

Because of the intergenerational way that kimchi recipes were passed down, the dish itself has been relatively slow to change. The longtime lack of communication between communities prevented people from discovering how kimchi recipes in, say, coastal Korea differed from those in a landlocked area. Thus, cooks oftentimes continued to replicate the kimchi of their grandmothers, rather than experimenting with tons of new ingredients. Of course, over time, new elements came to form part of people's old family recipes. However, this evolution was gradual. In their research for the Journal of Ethnic Foods, the food scientists revealed that "it is not true that the Korean food was changed at once."

White kimchi was invented in the 1980s

Because kimchi is such an iconic food, it's not surprising that there are many urban legends about where it originated. Some people even believe that kimchi started out as a white pickled cabbage dish and only became a red fermented cabbage dish in 1592 when Japanese peppers arrived in the region. However, the team of food scientists published in the Journal of Ethnic Foods debunked this myth, affirming that red peppers have long existed in Korea. Furthermore, they explained that ancient communities did not understand the science behind food preservation methods like pickling or fermentation. Thus, it would be extremely unlikely for them to switch from one to another in a matter of years.

That being said, white kimchi does exist in modern-day Korea — although it is not particularly traditional. The dish was likely invented in the 1980s at Japanese restaurants located in Korea. Apparently, the idea was to create a kimchi dish that would appeal to Koreans but that would also reflect a clean, white aesthetic. Because of this, chefs started preparing kimchi the old-fashioned way and then rinsing out the red pepper to make it look more foreign on a plate. They also altered the flavor by pickling it in sugar, giving it a uniquely sweet flavor. Of course, this particular method is relatively new, as sugar was not widely available in the region until the 20th century.

Traditional kimchi-making gatherings, called kimjang, are still popular

As time passes, some traditions inevitably die out. However, when it comes to the age-old Korean art of making kimchi, that could not be further from the truth. Kimjang, or the communal process of making kimchi, is still alive and well in Korea. And, it remains so integral to Korean culture that UNESCO added it to its Cultural Heritage list in 2013.

According to UNESCO, the act of creating kimchi is a year-long process. Depending on which ingredients they hope to use in their version, families can begin procuring fish and other seafood as early as spring. Then, during the summertime, they purchase red peppers to make a spicy red powder. By autumn, these households are ready for the kimjang, which oftentimes resemble a kimchi-making festival. At these events, entire communities gather, prepare kimchi, trade cooking tips, and snack on their creations. For many Koreans, kimjang represents a special moment to tear kimchi together and enjoy time with their friends and family. Traditionally, this is also a unique experience for newly-married women, who oftentimes bond with their mothers-in-law by learning the family kimchi recipe. 

Kimchi became a symbol of Korean culture

For many Koreans, kimjang conjure powerful moments of family and community bonding, as well as cultural heritage. Thus, kimchi itself has grown to become a symbol of what it means to be Korean. Writing in the Journal of Ethnic Foods, food scientists Reggie Surya and Anne Ga-Yeon Lee explained, "Having been an integral part in the Korean food culture for thousands of years, kimchi is considered as a symbol of Korean identity and pride."

Indeed, kimchi culture is not just about having a certain side on your plate. It is about the fact that the food itself invokes history, family ties, and connection to the people around us. In an interview with The Fermentation Association, Chi Kitchen's Minnie Luong shared that, for her, kimchi is "an iconic food symbolic of hope, trust, and survival that is the perfect food for our current times." In her opinion, kimchi inspires human values, especially that of goodwill towards our fellow mankind. She explained, "One of the world's most special foods, it elicits delight, storytelling and sharing."

Kimchi came to be viewed as more than just your average side dish

At a typical, American Thanksgiving dinner, the turkey is the star of the show. Of course, there will also be a plethora of side dishes, ranging from mashed potatoes to a green salad. However, it would be unusual for any one side to usurp the role of the turkey. At a typical, Korean dinner, the same could hardly be said about the kimchi.

Although kimchi is a side dish, it is a staple of Korean food culture. As food scientists Reggie Surya and Anne Ga-Yeon Lee explained in their study, kimchi is considered such an essential part of a meal that it is comparable to rice in terms of cultural significance. The experts wrote: "It is always present on Korean tables, and a Korean traditional meal is not complete without kimchi." Because of this, most Koreans consume kimchi twice a day, with lunch and dinner. And, the average Korean eats approximately 27.6 grams of kimchi per day. 

The food grew popular on the international stage

Korean cultural exports have exploded in recent years. K-Pop bands, like BTS and Blackpink, have seemed to release international hit songs one after the other. Meanwhile, Korean dramas, like Mr. Sunshine or Sky Castle, have become way more accessible thanks to the rise of streaming platforms. Korean food has seen a similar rise in popularity. According to Yelp, U.S. demand for this fantastic cuisine increased by 34% from 2012 to 2019. Naturally, kimchi has been a huge part of Americans' interest in Korean eats. Per the same report, up until 2009, the term "kimchi fries" basically never appeared in Yelp reviews. By 2019, however, it was frequently used.

It is, naturally, important to note that kimchi fries aren't a traditional Korean food. Nonetheless, we must remember that one of the reasons that kimchi has gained so much international popularity is that it pairs wonderfully with all kinds of different foods. Speaking to The Fermentation Association, chef JinJoo Lee described kimchi's taste as the "perfect balance of sour, spicy, salty, umami and slightly sweet." According to the culinary professional, this unique flavor profile makes kimchi the ideal ingredient to add to seafood and meat recipes. Lee told the outlet, "Kimchi works great in non-Korean dishes such as on hamburgers, pasta, cheese quesadillas, and even with Brussels sprouts."

Kimchi earned a reputation for being a super food

As kimchi has gained attention on a global scale, more and more people have become interested in the dish's health benefits. Just do a web search for "kimchi" and you'll see that the Internet is practically exploding with articles touting kimchi's status as a "superfood" — or, an ultra-nutritional eat. As reported by the Michelin Guide, the reason that kimchi is considered so healthy pertains to its high vitamin content. Indeed, according to WebMD, kimchi is high in Vitamins A, B, and C, as well as minerals like calcium. As a fermented food, it is also known as a strong source of probiotics. 

Kimchi's high nutritional content has likely increased its popularity, especially in the United States. In an interview with The Fermentation Association, Kheedim Oh, who founded Mama Oh's kimchi, commented, "People are attracted to the promises of probiotics. The comfort of supporting their immune systems with each bite. The flavor of fermentation. The addictive nature of how eating good kimchi makes you feel." In her opinion, people have been running towards kimchi because they are looking for a health boost. She explained, "With everyone in the world simultaneously experiencing sensations of uncertainty mixed with mortal fears of peer contact, people are drawn to the near-mythic powers of kimchi."

Some versions of kimchi became Americanized

Plenty of kimchi advocates are happy that Americans are discovering the food's amazing flavors and health benefits. Nonetheless, some are worried that the popularity of kimchi outside of Korea will also catalyze the Americanization of this dish. Kheedim Oh is already scared that this is happening. "The word kimchi has reached a tipping point where it's no longer just the stinky rotting cabbage from Korea (or wherever) to the acidic/tart vegetable dish that 'I had as part of a dish at the insert [trendy fusion restaurant] that I went to and I heard it's really good for you,'" she said.

For Oh, this image of kimchi as a trendy dish — rather than a community-oriented one that carries a lot of history — is concerning. She is especially unhappy with the way that kimchi has been adapted into white American culture without much concern for the food's cultural value. Oh explained, "It's losing its Korean-ness and quickly being subsumed into White American food culture the way that kombucha has already completely become."  

Interestingly, Oh is not the only person who is worried about the future of kimchi. Reggie Surya and Anne Ga-Yeon Lee expressed similar concerns in their study of kimchi's cultural presence. The pair wrote that they hope "people see kimchi not only as a mere ethnic food, but also as a global cultural heritage that needs preserving."

The international DIY movement helps preserve kimchi culture

Although it's true that many of the kimchi varieties available in the United States have been whitewashed or Americanized, there are ways to enjoy real kimchi — even outside of Korea. According to Kheedim Oh, one of the best ways to enjoy kimchi is to participate in the DIY movement. By making your own kimchi and learning about kimjang culture, you can extend your knowledge about this food, all while being respectful of Korean culture. 

Oh explained that "there is the whole DIY home fermentation movement that has been growing year over year." According to Oh, this movement is oftentimes "culturally sensitive." She especially stressed the importance of allowing the food to be recognized for its status, not only as a delicacy but also as something that is uniquely Korean.

Of course, DIY kimchi is not the only way to learn more about this culturally significant dish. Reggie Surya and Anne Ga-Yeon Lee wrote that learning more about kimchi culture is also a great first step, stressing the importance of "understanding the philosophical values of kimchi and kimjang culture."