South Korea has a thing for the nation title. They have everything from the Nation’s Little Sister or Brother, the Nation’s Boy Group, the Nation’s MC, to the Nation’s First Love. These are not official titles and could be up for contention. But one national symbol that no one could argue is the title for South Korea’s National Dish – Kimchi.
So let’s look closer to this Korean culture representative that is far more popular than any K-drama and K-pop group. Say kimchi!
김치 (Kimchi) is a staple part of any Korean meal. This traditional side dish is basically fermented and pickled vegetables, most commonly napa cabbages and daikon radishes.
Kimchi varies from the main ingredients used and its seasoning mix. Other vegetables used to make kimchi are celery, cucumber, eggplant, garlic chives, ginger, parsley, lotus roots, onions, perilla leaves, potatoes, pumpkins, radish greens, scallions, soybean sprouts, spinach, sugar beets, sweet potato vines, and tomatoes. Meanwhile, Korean sea salt is mainly used for the initial seasoning before adding basic flavorings like garlic, ginger, and Korean red chili flakes.
Fun fact: The original Korean kimchi is non-spicy and white in color. Chile was only brought in the Korean peninsula by the Portuguese in the 1700s.
젓갈 (jeotgal or salted seafood) are also added as flavor enhancers for kimchi. 새우젓 (salted shrimp) and fish sauce are often used but there are varieties that also use raw squid, baby octopus, oysters, and sardines.
Kimchi’s fermentation process makes it different from other pickled dishes. Kimchi vegetables should be tightly packed and submerged in their juice in their jar.
Kimchi’s history can be traced back to the early period of Three Kingdoms. Vegetables were salted to preserve it for the off-season.
Traditionally, neighborhood ladies will gather and make large batches of kimchi. They will pack the kimchi in giant 옹기 (onggi or Korean earthenware) and store it underground to last through winter. This traditional process of preparation and preservation of kimchi is called 김장 (kimjang).
Fun fact: Did you know that Kimjang is listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in December 2013? Unfortunately, this tradition is now rare to see.
If you love this pungent fermented side dish and plans to visit South Korea in the future, there is a couple of festivals dedicated to the nation’s favorite cuisine.
Seoul Kimchi Festival (서울김장문화제) was first held in 2014 in a bid to promote Korean culture to international visitors. Visitors can experience Korea’s Kimjang culture and other kimchi-making activities.
Gwangju World Kimchi Festival (광주세계김치축제) is held at South Korea’s only Kimchi themed park, Gwangju Kimchi Town. It has different kimchi-related events like cooking experience, art gallery, and kimchi market.
People tend to overlook things that they see every day. It includes things we grew up with and has been part of life since we were young. The continuing tradition of kimchi making in Korea is a proof that this East Asian country values its past and embraces changes towards the future. Kimchi is more than a tasty side dish but an important representation of South Korea.