Kimchi is an iconic Korean side dish staple made of fermented vegetables that has survived and received an abundance of love over many generations. Traditionally, kimchi consists of napa cabbage, garlic, ginger, gochugaru (red pepper flakes), salt, and scallions. However, the star of the show is the good bacteria on the cabbage, which facilitates the fermentation process that gives kimchi its signature sour, tangy, and umami flavor.

This side dish originates from the time of the three kingdoms (1st century BC to the 7th century AD), during which Koreans had developed methods of food preservation to help sustain themselves during the harsh winter months. With years of continuing tradition, it’s no wonder the basic recipe has branched into multiple variations. For instance, there’s a non-spicy version called white kimchi; radish kimchi called kkakdugi; cucumber kimchi, also known as oi sobaegi, and much, much more.

Not to mention, kimchi provides health benefits like probiotics, as well as vitamins A and C. Eaten by itself or paired in dishes like kimchi bokkeumbap or kimchi jjigae, kimchi proves to be a tasty, versatile, and dare I say, flawless superfood.

Kimchi has always been an integral part of my life and my culture. I still remember during my turn of “all about me” presentations in kindergarten how I boasted that kimchi was my favorite food, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. At the time, I didn’t even realize how familiar kimchi was to me since I ate it almost every day, while it could have been novel and unfamiliar to my peers. With the growth of South Korean pop culture, also known as Hallyu or the “Korean Wave,” came the rise of kimchi on the international stage. 

Photo of kimchi by Joseph Labrador.

But what is so special about kimchi? Here’s a detailed run-down on the qualities that make kimchi so timeless and iconic:

How to make kimchi:

Like other fermented foods, the sour, tangy, and umami taste of kimchi is a product of fermentation. The first step to making kimchi is the brining process, which is used to kill any harmful bacteria in the cabbage. Then comes to the 2-3 day fermentation process, which is conducted by the lactic acid bacteria, also known as Lactobacillus.

What many families, including mine, do is keep the prepared kimchi in the fridge since cold temperatures could slow the fermentation process, and thus keep the kimchi fresher for a longer period of time. My grandma even has a special “kimchi fridge” just to store kimchi in it. Depending on the amount of time the kimchi is left to ferment, the taste will differ. Right before the kimchi is considered “ripe,” it will taste slightly sour, which is the way I like it. However, as it ripens, the sour taste becomes more balanced out by sweetness. So, no matter what you prefer, kimchi has got it all.

Illustration by Cailey Tervo.

What does kimchi taste like?

When it comes to the taste of kimchi, it’s a little bit difficult to describe to someone who has never tried it before. It’s easiest to compare with other fermented foods like sauerkraut. Upon the first bite of kimchi, a sharp wave of sourness explodes in your mouth, only to soon be balanced out by the spice and sweetness as you chew further. This initial burst of flavor is what gives kimchi its appeal and makes it a perfect partner for milder foods like rice.

The best-kept secret to the ultimate, flavorful kimchi is actually cooking it over heat. Just like all foods, kimchi has a limited shelf-life. After the fermentation period ends, a pungent smell could rise from the kimchi and could perforate the air in the fridge. However, instead of throwing this kimchi away, many families like mine just add it in other dishes like kimchi jjigae or just fry it on the pan. To me, the best fried kimchi comes from cooking it with the leftover oil of pork belly barbecue, or samgyeopsal gui. The natural oils that seep out of the pork belly when cooking is the perfect base for fried kimchi- the finished dish tastes more sweet than sour, and has just the right hint of flavor from the meat, making it all the more heavenly. Nonetheless, this proves that kimchi not only tastes amazing, but also serves as a sustainable staple in the Korean diet.

Photo of kimchi by Joseph Labrador.

How to use kimchi (and its different variations):

Just as I mentioned previously, there are multiple kinds of kimchi. For those who don’t handle spice too well, there’s a completely non-spicy dish known as “white kimchi.” Despite the absence of red pepper flakes, white kimchi offers a mild, refreshing taste. Additionally, kkakdugi is another variation where instead of napa cabbage, diced radishes are used. Though the flavor base is similar to regular napa cabbage kimchi, kkakdugi offers a crunchier consistency and juicier texture. It is most often paired along with seoullongtang, or ox bone stew (my absolute favorite combination).

Another one of my favorites is oi sobaegi, or cucumber kimchi. Now you might be thinking, cucumber has a completely mild taste, so how could it pass for kimchi, which is well-known for its tanginess? Well, oi sobaegi is different from napa cabbage kimchi in that it doesn’t require a fermentation process. Perfect for summer months, oi sobaegi has a refreshing taste and offers a perfect quick alternative to the urgent need to eat kimchi. Stuffed with a variety of vegetables, fish sauce, salted shrimp, and more, oi sobaegi retains its kimchi-like properties with a spicy, strong flavor. In all, the aforementioned types of kimchi are only a small fraction of the multitude of variations.

The health benefits of kimchi:

With an exquisite flavor and lengthened shelf-period thanks to fermentation, could kimchi get any better? In simplest terms, yes. Kimchi has been known to provide an abundance of health benefits, making it a very powerful superfood. The common napa cabbage kimchi is packed with nutrients like vitamins A and D, 34 types of amino acids, and 10 essential minerals. Additionally, due to the fermentation process, the perfect conditions are created for probiotics to thrive in. Not only that, but kimchi has been found to boost the immune system, suppress inflammation, and even support heart health.

With a unique taste, deep-rooted history, and diverse health benefits, it’s no wonder that kimchi has been receiving love throughout time and around the world. As an avid fan of this dish for nearly my entire life, I definitely recommend trying kimchi to umami enthusiasts and food adventurists!