Posted : 2013-10-31 17:09
Updated : 2013-10-31 17:09

The making of Kimchi, from the inside out

The evolving art of kimchi

By Yun Suh-young

It's that time of the year again when Koreans prepare for the winter by making and preserving their favorite side-dish, kimchi.

It's called "kimjang," a Korean term referring to the making of kimchi in large batches, to store in kimchi refrigerators or in earthen jars in preparation for the cold months ahead.

Kimjang dates back a thousand years, to when people were searching for ways to preserve vegetables by salting or pickling. Kimjang is unique to Korea and the oldest remaining method of storing vegetables in the world.

Perhaps for that reason, the custom is expected to be added to UNESCO's list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity once the organization makes its final decision on the matter in December.

A woman and her daughter-in-law are seen seasoning salted cabbages.
/ Courtesy of Korea Cultural Heritage Foundation

The move comes after the Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) of Korea applied for the recognition to the relevant UNESCO subsidiary committee. The recognition of kimjang as the organization's 16th intangible cultural heritage is seen as a formality because UNESCO almost never rejects a recommendation from its subsidiary committee.

Reflecting on the meaning of this listing, a CHA official said the recognition was more about the process of kimchi-making than the dish itself.

"The recommendation was not for a specific dish, kimchi, but for kimjang, the culture of making the dish. We initially submitted the application to show that such culture still exists and I think the cooperative spirit of our kimchi making culture was highly evaluated," said Jeong Eun-seon, program specialist at the International Cooperation Division of CHA and in charge of the submission.

"As the listing is for kimjang and not kimchi, we should not interpret this as a recognition of the excellence of kimchi itself. A listing of a specific dish can cause a lot of misunderstandings as well as concerns of that dish becoming overly commercialized. Kimjang has nothing to do with the commercialization of kimchi," said Jeong.

Seasoning of kimchi

The Korea Cultural Heritage Foundation, an affiliate organization of CHA, published a book called "Kimjang: Making and Sharing Kimchi" in September, in line with the UNESCO submission.

About kimjang & kimchi

Kimchi, the spicy Korean side-dish usually made with napa cabbage, is deeply rooted in Korea's culinary tradition. Koreans can hardly get through a meal without the fiery stuff.

As much as the dish itself is widely appreciated, the culture behind it is also a valued tradition.

Historical records about kimjang date back to the 13th century. During the Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392), poet Yi Gyu-bo wrote that people during those days made radish kimchi by soaking it in soy sauce in the summer and in salt during the winter.

The ingredients in kimchi usually include garlic, ginger, chives, red chili pepper, cabbages, radish and green onion.
/ Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

However, Koreans are presumed to have used vegetables and salt to create fermented food even earlier than that. Earlier forms of kimchi are believed to have been salted or pickled in soy sauce, using the simplest of ingredients. From the 10th to 14th centuries, the vegetables used included cucumber, chives, water celery, bamboo shoots and eggplant. People started adding spices to the dish and more watery version of kimchi also appeared.

In the early Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), various ingredients such as ginger, garlic, green onion, and chili started being used in the pickling process. A version that included pheasant meat also appeared.

It was not until the late Joseon Kingdom that chili powder became the main seasoning and cabbage the main vegetable used. Farmers began growing cabbage used for kimchi from the 1900s.

In the old days, Korean women spent nearly half a year preparing for kimjang. Gathering of ingredients started about six months before kimjang. Purchasing of fermented seafood and salt occurred in summer, chili peppers in early autumn, and Napa cabbage and radish were bought at the beginning of winter.

Kimchi is the main side dish on Koreans' dining table.
/ Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

When the salting and seasoning were complete, the cabbage was placed inside earthen jars and buried underground to be fermented. It was buried to be kept at a constant cool temperature of 4 to 8 degrees Celsius.

Such a long and cumbersome process required many people to be involved in the massive project and became a reason why the kimjang culture developed as a community project.

The concept of "pumasi," the Korean practice of communal labor, was crucial back in those days. "Pum" means labor and "asi" means returning borrowed labor. This created a spirit of cooperation among neighbors. This was also the only event in which men helped out women with their work.

Nowadays, Kimjang is conducted over the span of two or three days. On the first day, vegetables are rinsed in clean water and salted. On the second day, seasonings are applied. Then they are kept in refrigerators specially designed for storing kimchi.

‘Kimchi hallyu'

In 2006, U.S. magazine Health selected kimchi as one of the five healthiest foods in the world along with Spanish olive oil, Greek yogurt, Indian lentils and Japanese soy.

Kimchi contains high levels of vitamins including vitamins A, B and C, beta-carotene, niacin, and minerals such as calcium, potassium, iron, and phosphorous; as well as organic acids, dietary fiber and lactic acid bacteria, according to research by professor Park Kun-young of Pusan National University.

The fiber contained in cabbage and radish helps discharge metal and waste from the body, activates the bowels, and controls cholesterol build up in the body. Chili peppers are said to help combat aging and activate metabolism. The garlic has antibiotic effects.

The globalization of kimchi has come a long way, as it is now exported to 53 countries, according to the Korea Agro-Fisheries & Food Trade Corporation.

But there still are obstacles that the dish must overcome to become a global product consumed at every corner of the world.

China's tough regulations on imported food make it hard for kimchi to be exported to China. In the United States, restaurant owners in New York are slapped with fines if kimchi is not stored below 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius), which is lower than the temperature kimchi is usually kept at.

Exports to Japan, the biggest importer of Korean kimchi, dropped significantly this year due to the weakening yen.

"We expect the listing of kimjang culture on UNESCO to boost recognition of kimchi in the long run and slowly boost exports," said Paik Yu-tae, manager at the food export team at Korea Agro-Fisheries & Food Trade Corporation.

"The exports peaked last year at $106 million but this year, the numbers have been reduced due to the weak Japanese currency and worsening relations between Japan and Korea. Exports to Japan make up 80 percent of kimchi export."

After Japan, United States, Hong Kong and Taiwan are the next biggest importers of kimchi.

Last year, $108 million worth of kimchi was exported to China. Imports of Chinese-made kimchi reached $87.6 million the same year. "We saw a huge trade deficit due to kimchi imported from China," said Paik.

Food experts, however, disregard the competition of kimchi from China or Japan.

"Kimchi originated in Korea and kimchi from China isn't actually kimchi or called kimchi. Regarding the confusion with Japan's ‘kimuchi,' CODEX made it clear in 2001 that kimchi was Korean food," said Lee Jong-lim, president of Korea Food and Culture Research Center.

CODEX is short for Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC), an international food standard set by the World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

"To truly globalize kimchi, we need to brand it and bring up its quality. We also need to localize its use as well as commercialize it with different packaging. Standardization of kimchi to fit to the foreigners' taste is also another task," said Lee.

"By standardization, I mean making kimchi less spicy or less salty. For instance, we give out white kimchi (milder ones) to foreigners at hotels. We can also take out jeotgal (salted fish) from the kimchi or put in less chili pepper.

Still, some foreigners who are used to kimchi love the spicy taste of it. A way to utilize kimchi in foreign food is to make it a fusion ingredient in foods such as tacos. I don't think we should be afraid of kimchi being disregarded to foreigners."

Lee added, "Kimchi has 100 times more lactic acid bacteria and fiber than yogurt does. And fermented food can be addictive. In that sense, I think kimchi has its merits."

Types of kimchi

Sliced radish kimchi

Made by putting thinly sliced radishes with seasoned cabbage into salted water

Nabak kimchi

Cabbage kimchi

Made by salting, seasoning and fermenting uncut cabbage

Baechu kimchi

Cucumber kimchi

Made by cutting cucumber into four pieces and slicing them into four sections and putting seasonings in between them

Oi kimchi

Small radish kimchi

Made by cutting small radishes into four pieces and salting and mixing them with seasoned paste

Chonggak kimchi

Green chili pepper kimchi

Made by slicing green chili peppers in the middle and seasoning them inside

Gochu kimchi

Diced radish kimchi

Made by cutting radishes into cubes and seasoning them

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