A short history of a traditional Korean food: Kimchi

Alex Janmaat
Dec 11, 2017 · 4 min read

South-Korea has a very broad and interesting kitchen which is known worldwide. Some argue that the diversity of the kitchen and the focus on vegetables makes it one of the healthiest kitchens in the world. The South-Korean kitchen as we know it today has evolved through centuries of change within the country. One of the most standing out aspects of the South-Korean kitchen is the huge amount of side dishes which are served during a meal. To give some understanding of how South-Korea developed such a rich food culture we will look at the history of one of the most famous side-dishes in South-Korea’s: Kimchi.

Kimchi is a spicy fermented vegetable that is served with almost every traditional meal in South-Korea. The most famous kind of Kimchi is made from Chinese cabbage but there are a lot of other vegetables which are used to make kimchi as well. This side dish is perfect to give an understanding of how South-Korean foods developed over the centuries since the existence of kimchi is traceable all the way back to the first people that started using agriculture to sustain their selves.

A picture of kimchi

When the first Koreans started using agriculture they had huge problems with the weather in Korea since the winters where very cold. It was important to save food for the winter and the most popular way to preserve food was using salt on different kind of foods. Over the centuries Koreans mastered the art of preservation using salt. During the period of the Three Kingdoms (57 B.C.E — 668 C.E.) other kingdoms noticed the way the Koreans preserved their food and this is where we find the first writings about the skills of the Koreans in preserving food. The original kimchi was made from radishes since this was a local product.

The first writing about Kimchi specifically comes from the Koryeo Period (918–1392). During this time a lot of trade was going on with other kingdoms and new vegetables found their way to Korea, including Chinese cabbage. During this period the way kimchi was prepared changed a lot. A lot of different kind of vegetables where used to prepare the dish and spices and garlic made their way into the recipe.

During the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910) the recipe of kimchi got even more diverse. Different vegetables and spices where used to prepare the dish. A lot of the influences during this time came from the Japanese. During the Joseon Dynasty the Japanese tried to concur Korea multiple times. It is argued that the attempts to concur Korea are the direct reason for some ingredients to find their way into Korea. Others say that it is not a direct consequence but it was the trade between the countries that made it possible. Either way a lot of Japanese food traditions and ingredients made it to the Korean kitchen and the other way around. Perhaps the Japanese product with the most impact on kimchi was soy sauce. The soy sauce gave the Koreans another way to preserve their food.

For a long time, Korea has been a very isolated country and they did not have much ties with Chinese and other surrounding countries except for Japan. Still it was during the Joseon Dynasty that chili peppers and sweet potato where introduced in Korea. The Japanese where very involved in the world at that time, compared to their neighbours, and it is widely believed they are responsible for introducing chilli peppers and sweet potatoes to Korea. Others argue that the chilli pepper and sweet potato find their way to Korea through trade with the Chinese.

The introduction of the chilli pepper changed the recipe for kimchi radically once again. The different kind of kimchi’s started growing rapidly and for most of these kimchi’s chilli is used to make it spicy. The most famous kimchi made from Chinese cabbage got invented roughly 200 years ago. Around this time there where around 100 different kinds of kimchi. In the last 200 years the number of different kinds of kimchi rose to over 200. It can be said that there is a direct link between the trade with other countries, and therefore an increase in ingredients, and the number of different kinds of kimchi.

The history of this delicious side dish shows us that Korean foods origin from a time wherein survival was the priority. The basic need for food in the winter was a reason for people to start fermenting their food. Over many centuries the dish adapted to changing situations and got enriched by different kind of ingredients which were unknown to the Koreans that lived before them. It is interesting to see how kimchi found its origin within the geographical area we now call Korea but got influenced hugely by the outside world over time. The most famous kind of kimchi we now today uses Chinese cabbage and chili peppers as main ingredients. Still the art of fermenting food is a tradition that Koreans have been using for centuries since the first Koreans started using agriculture to sustain.

By: Alex Janmaat

Alex Janmaat

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