Why this Asian obsession with such food that is fermented is a question perhaps best reserved for some other day. But as we continue to explore just how intricately the process of fermentation finds expression in the culinary delights indulged in this part of the world, we stumble this time upon another classic- Kimchi. Much like the Japanese natto or the Naga axuni, it also is the fermented basis of this Korean staple that lends it its distinctive identity. Even when kimchi finds itself in a soup (figuratively, that is) with the Chinese claim over a dish intricately woven within the gastronomic heritage of South Korea, it only seems to be something happening for the better as this indeed has opened up a world of further recognition for this mainstay Korean side dish to gain even more global ground.
Essentially, kimchi is a form of pickled condiment much like what achaar is to us Indians or more closely, what sauerkraut is to Germans that interestingly stems again of a Chinese origin. Listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO that “reaffirms Korean identity”, Kimchi however is a food that can encompass an array of ingredients though it is mostly understood to be a dish of napa cabbage and Korean radish. In its origin however, kimchi began as a means to preserve the bounty of vegetable harvest reaped during winter, gaining more versatility over time as a side dish that came to rule every Korean platter across all weathers and seasons, in maybe its minuscule but no less significant presence. With any of a number of combinations that essentially includes some vegetables, garlic, ginger, Korean chili peppers, salt, and fish sauce, kimchi comes across as an interesting fusion of flavours that only enhances further the taste of however sumptuous or modest a feast you might have piled on your plate. Striped or sliced veggies are seasoned with salt and gochugaru or chili powder and scallions and ginger and garlic and jeotgal (salted seafood) before packing tightly into jars and allowing to ferment for a week or two at room temperature. The resultant concoction is a blend that is an explosion of flavours that while serves as a piquant side dish or appetiser, works also equally well as a condiment or an additional ingredient in many dishes. And why not indeed? With an array of tastes that smacks of the sweet and the salty and the sour and the spicy with hints also of the umami well as a nutritional profile that stems from the myriad veggies and spices used in it, it is easy to see just why and how kimchi has transcended from being Korean household favorites to emerge as a global superstar in its exquisite range of wondrous encompassings.
Interestingly however, it isn’t only the kimchi dish that occupies central place in the gastronomic realm of Korea. Beyond even its identity as a food that pairs with any and everything when it comes to Korean fare, kimchi also is an integral part of the intangible cultural heritage of a land known globally for its wave of pop culture that enjoys a distinctive identity of its own in the realm of world entertainment. This is a distinction that has been brought upon the Korean mainland by kimchi through its process of kimchi making, that which finds expression through its traditional process of kimjang or gimjang. Every year in late autumn, the traditional communal process of gimjang sees kickstarting the preparations of kimchi through preserving vegetables by cutting, washing and salting them. Traditionally stored away in earthenware jars in the ground to offset such problems as freezing or over fermenting of it depending on the season, kimchi making is still an important annual ritual for many families and that which in fact spurs a sizeable portion of the rural employment scene in the country. In its such extensive heritage that goes beyond merely enhancing the multitude of flavours on your plate, kimchi indeed is a strongpoint of the very identity of Korea.
But even when kimchi tends to be relished by not just the Korean people as part of their tradition but also by global citizens owing to just how much a little dash of it alleviates the mood of the food altogether, there is no doing away with the really pungent smell of kimchi. While that is an attribute that can almost be unequivocally attributed to the fermented nature of it, most like a characterisation that does, or rather undoes, the natto or the axune, the odour of the Korean staple tends however to be not that unpleasant. In also its unique taste that somehow derives from the smell of it, kimchi understandably ceases to be kimchi at all if not for the pungency, at least in part of it. Deriving from its heady mix of fermented veggies flavoured with spices and seafood sauces, the very distinctive smell of kimchi is what makes it perhaps all the more a phenomenon deeply embedded in the Korean culture, particularly that of South Korea. For North Korea though, a cut of the salted seafood makes kimchi not as much tantalising in its subtlety, both in flavour and appearance. Naturally then, in its toned down levels of spiciness, it basically is North Korea that explores kimchi more as a main dish as well while the southern spectrum of the region goes indulgent in it either as a side or a condiment to dishes. Be it soups or stews, pancakes or fried rice, kimchi finds wide acceptance in almost every food that defines Korean cuisine. With an element so deeply rooted in the Korean context, it comes as no surprise therefore that posing for a picture in South Korea would mean that to fetch the smiles, you need not be saying ‘cheese‘; you just need to be saying ‘kimchi’!
In its definite embedment in Korean culture therefore, going way and beyond merely the folds of the culinary, kimchi rakes up its popularity also in its immense health benefits. A superfood already by virtue of its fermented properties, and included therefore as one of the healthiest foods in the world, kimchi is essentially high on fibre and low on calories due to it being a largely vegetable based preparation. Loaded with vitamins and minerals stemming from its range of ingredients, it also is the fermented goodness of kimchi that lends it particularly well in being an excellent source of aiding gut health. Loaded with probiotics that occur naturally to aid the fermentation process of kimchi, these probiotics also lend themselves well to the human body, aiding in digestion and nutrient absorption accounting therefore for a healthy you. In lowering cholesterol levels as well thereby leading to a healthy heart while also reducing blood sugar and blood pressure levels to strengthening your overall immunity, kimchi is surprisingly effective. A note of caution however needs to be exercised as regards to the gassy properties of kimchi owing to its high fiber as well as fermented basis. Like everything though, when eaten in moderation as a side that makes your lip smack in an assortment of uniquely palatable flavours, kimchi serves only to enhance further the taste quotient of every plate while endowing you also with its many wholesome health benefits.