The national food of Korea is undoubtedly kimchi. To many, sliced, spicy, fermented cabbage sounds far from a food with mass appeal – and the photo above isn’t exactly inviting. Yet, Koreans eat kimchi with almost every meal, and a typical Korean will eat 60 pounds of it each year. It is in many ways intertwined with everyday Korean life and culture, so much so that when it’s time to take photos, many say “kimchi!” instead of “cheese!”Kimchi is not for everyone, but I absolutely love, love, love it. For being such a simple food, there can be so much variety – different levels of spiciness, crunchiness (dependent on how fresh it is), richness of flavors from other vegetables and seafood used during fermentation, and how well it goes with certain foods. Different regions of the country also have their own variations on the side dish. Additionally, other foods beside cabbage can be kimchi’d, such as radish, scallions and garlic stems (my personal favorite). Like cheese in America, kimchi seems to find its way into almost any food. There’s kimchi fried rice, kimchi soup, kimchi jeon (kind of the Korean version of a pancake), on pizza and in burgers.
This is not some sort of concoction that people buy at a convenience store on their way home from work; two-thirds of all the kimchi consumed in Korea is homemade. The average person devotes a lot of time and energy into making it, with secret recipes handed down from generation to generation. There is even a specific kimchi-making season, called kimjang, in November. Family members get together, typically the women, and make enough kimchi for the entire year to come. You can see the large brown ceramic pots that kimchi ferments in all over the country.
So much of it is made that almost all Korean households will have a specially designed refrigerator to house the stuff. In the perfect collision of Korean culture, Psy (you know, the recent global sensation behind “Gangnam Style”) is even selling kimchi fridges in advertisements using his ridiculous song (you can check that out here).
Interestingly enough, even though kimchi is such a staple of the Korean diet, most of the cabbage sourced for its production comes from China. Which caused a bit of a crisis on the peninsula in 2010 when unfavorable weather where the cabbage is grown near Beijing caused the supply to drastically drop, resulting in prices more than tripling. The government stepped in, reducing tariffs on imported cabbage in hopes to bring prices to a reasonable level.
Kimchi is also insanely healthy, with Health Magazine listing it as one of the world’s healthiest foods. It has tons of vitamins and “healthy bacteria” and it prevents yeast infections and possibly cancer, so there’s no guilt in going on a kimchi binge. The best thing is that at restaurants in Korea, kimchi, along with all other side dishes, are unlimited; so you can eat kimchi as an appetizer, side dish, dessert or even as a main course.
Be sure to check out more about Korean culture from other Kimchi-ite posts here.
[Photo credits: Heungsub Lee and Drab Makyo]