Kimchi is a traditional Korean ferment that is a staple side dish in many Korean households. While there are countless variations on how kimchi is made (each region of Korea has its own version, and recipes vary from family to family), the common denominator amongst ingredients in most kimchi recipes is the inclusion of hot red peppers (either fresh or powdered), crushed garlic, and green onions. Although most Westerners are familiar with the pungent and spicy version of kimchi made with cabbage, this is by no means the only vegetable one can ferment to make kimchi. A wide variety of fruits and vegetables are used to make this ferment, ranging from watermelon rinds to pumpkin blossoms to Asian pear, depending on the season.
Once the main fruit or vegetable to be fermented has been salted and its water extracted, other flavor-builders are mixed in, including spices, ginger, nuts, fruits, seaweed, and even seafood. In areas of Korea with an ample seafood supply, it is not unheard of to find kimchis with oysters, salted shrimp, anchovies, skate, squid, octopus, baby shrimp, pollack, or yellow corvina. In the mountainous northern regions, where seafood isn’t as readily available, beef broth is sometimes added instead to increase the depth of the flavor profile.
While the heavier, more robust and meaty (or fishy) versions of kimchi are traditionally made in the fall when cabbage comes into season, there is also a spring version of kimchi called nabak kimchi, or water kimchi, which is much more mild and does not utilize fish sauce or shrimp. For this version, chunks of radish, cabbage, carrot, and pear float in a clear broth flavored with slices of ginger, garlic, green onion, powdered hot chilies, and salt. The seasonings are sliced and not minced in water kimchi so as to infuse the broth with a much more delicate flavoring.
Another common way kimchi is eaten is as a fresh “salad,” known as geotjeoli (sometimes spelled geotjeori). Although this dish is not fermented, it has a similar flavor profile as it uses the same fixings as kimchi, but with raw cabbage instead. And, for those who can’t take the heat of kimchi, there is a version called baek kimchi, or white kimchi, which is made by stuffing napa cabbages with a variety of ingredients, such as chestnuts, jujubes, and pine nuts. Since this recipe omits the hot chili peppers, it yields a mild and refreshing dish.
Kimchi is an excellent accompaniment to any dish, but is especially good when paired with meats as the enzymes and bacteria produced by the fermentation process aid in digestion.
Katz, S. E. (2012). The art of fermentation: An in-depth exploration of essential concepts and processes from around the world. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.
Ro, H. (2016, March 28). Nabak Kimchi (Water Kimchi) [Web log post].