For the past few years, Americans have sought culturally inspired foods and condiments that challenge the palate, Korean and Latin flavors primary among them. Kimchi, Korea’s national dish of fermented vegetables, has emerged as one of the most popular of these “new-ancient” foods. Its versatility boosts flavor and texture in almost any dish, and its health benefits are numerous.
History. Conceived in Korea around the 7th century, kimchi was developed as a vegetable storage method for cold winter months when fresh veggies could not be cultivated. Originally preserved with just salt, it did not see the addition of hot red pepper as a major ingredient until about the 18th century. Since then, it has retained most of the same characteristics and prep methods to this day.
Koreans love this food so much that in 1986 they established the Pulmuone Kimchi Museum in Seoul to study the culture of kimchi and to promote it both in Korea and internationally.
Types of kimchi. Most often described as salty, sour or spicy, kimchi has literally endless permutations. It is made with vegetables ranging from Napa cabbage and daikon radish to scallions and cucumbers. Some kimchi is stuffed or wrapped.
Making and storing. Traditional methods saw kimchi fermented and stored underground in jars for months (and some purists still make it this way). According to the website www.ilovekimchi.org, the yearlong process of making and storing kimchi in Korea is called kimjang, and it relies on the seasonal harvesting and combining of ingredients.
“The important aspect of making kimchi is the fermentation of the vegetables,” says the website. Salt is the catalyst to perfect fermentation. With just the right amount of salt, lactic acid and probiotic bacteria begin to form and fermentation will happen naturally. The ideal salt concentration is around 3% and the ideal storage temperature is about 50 degrees.” Recipes for kimchi can be found on www.ilovekimchi.org and all over the Web.
Nutritional impact. A host of research studies have been done on this food. It is credited with preventing various cancers and drawing out heavy metals from the liver, kidney and small intestines. The organic acid, lactobacilli and lactic acid produced during kimchi fermentation have been shown to suppress harmful bacteria and to stimulate beneficial bacteria, prevent constipation, clean intestines and prevent colon cancer. One study showed that it slowed skin aging, while other research found that it lowers cholesterol and helps prevent high blood pressure and diabetes. Nutritionally speaking, it contains calcium, copper, phosphorus and iron; it is also rich in vitamins A, C, B1 and B2.