Why should I be surprised to find out that Kimchi, Korean Kimchi, was not an unproblematic post I really don’t know – I should have known better. This was to be a simple post. This is not a simple post.

First, Kimchi. Kimchi is a Korean side dish of salted and fermented vegetables. It developed to help people have access to food during the cold winter months in Korea. Cabbages and radishes are the most commonly used kimchi vegetables (Wikipeadia). Commonly used seasonings include gochugaru (chili powder), scallions, garlic, ginger, and salted seafood. Traditionally, kimchi was fermented in cool pits in the ground to help control the speed at which bacteria can grow. Properly made, kimchi can help preserve vegetables all year long. Kimchi is a crunchy food that is said to provide impressive health benefits in the way of vitamin, minerals and antioxidants.

Kimchi is said to be served at every meal in South Korea. The fiery fermented food is South Korea’s national dish, it is part of the Korean identity. When South Korea launched its first astronaut to space in 2008, it sent kimchi with her. So, to simply say this or any other food is important is trite. Reams have been written, scholarly articles have expounded, whole academic schools of thought are devoted to the importance of food – in all sorts of ways – as sustenance for our everyday lives; the way food connects us to families and friends; how food creates for all of us cultural and national identities.

As much as it brings us together it can also be a route to differentiation. Haggis will never be an English dish, but neither will Yorkshire Puddings be limited to Yorkshire. Pavlova will remain a disputed dish between territories of the southern Pacific and provide gentle teasing forevermore. Yams, grown and celebrated in Nigeria, provide, by the different yearly dates of ‘first’ yam celebration events, cultural markers of importance between Yoruba and Ibo. Food can also be a tool in struggles between peoples – think of US slaves who were forbidden from cooking their traditional dishes. As a creator of national identity and differentiator between nations Kimchi has a long history.

Let’s start near the end. In 2013 UNESCO included South Korea (The Republic of Korea) in the Lists of Intangible Heritage for Kimjang, the manufacture and sharing of kimchi. These lists state unequivocally that a given cultural norm is representative solely of a given culture (in 2015 North Korea, The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, was also included for their tradition of kimchi making). This is a huge achievement and ostensibly brings to an end centuries of debate, confusion, and argument not only as to the ‘ownership’ of kimchi but also as to the origins of the dish, the ingredients and the right to call it Korean.

The Chinese work called Records of the Three Kingdoms from 289 C.E. details the making of Kimchi. However, Alex Janmaat (Medium) dates the Korean use of salt for preservation to a period prior to the (Korean) Three Kingdoms (57 B.C.E. – 668 C.E.) and the first writings about it to the later Koryeo Period (918-1392). It should be noted that Korea did not have its own written characters (Hangeul) till 1433 and so used Chinese characters to write and Korean language when speaking. And this is where the first and one of the most deeply debated problems emerge. In a discussion of the origins of Kimchi in the Journal of Ethnic Foods, 2015, the authors are adamant that kimchi is not to be confused with the somewhat similar Chinese dish, paocai, even though the characters used to describe Kimchi pre 1433 were Chinese characters.

This debate continues even now, with Korean Kimchi often being served in China under the name of paocai. Pao cai, though, is simply vegetables pickled in brine, while Kimchi (Fuchia Dunlop, The Food of Sichuan) is layered with ground chillies and fermented with seafood, (and) neither of those are present in Sichuanese pao cai.

Quartz tells us that, in the wake of its Unesco triumph, the Korean government is now pushing a radical branding overhaul of kimchi in Chinese-speaking countries. ‘The (Korean) government is asking that China, Hong Kong and Taiwan retire the word paocai (which literally means “pickled vegetables” but is also used to refer to kimchi), proposing in its place xinqi (pronounced “shin-chee”), a wholly new Chinese word that only sort of sounds like kimchi and means “spicy/sour” and “mystical.”’ However, China’s pao cai, recently won ISO certification and China’s state-run Global Times newspaper quickly pounced on the certification, (BBC Travel 18/12/2020) claiming it as “an international standard for the kimchi industry led by China” – and so the battle continues.

And now to the debates over the composition of kimchi and the origins of the ingredients. There is a general acknowledgement that Kimchi changes over the centuries with the introduction of various vegetables. There is argument over the original ingredients of Kimchi with the present day use of Chinese/Napa cabbage being used as an argument that no other cabbages were available prior to this and so the original ingredient was not cabbage. It is not disputed that the original Kimchi was made with white radish, however, Purely Probiotic’s The Bacteria Blog notes that kimchi was indeed made with other seasonal cabbages (e.g yangbaechu or green cabbage) before the 19th century, and that trade with India, which is recorded from circa 2030 B.C.E. could easily be the source for various types of cabbage.

Peppers too are a source of debate with some saying that they were introduced during the colonial invasions of Korea by the Japanese (chilies coming to Japan via Portuguese traders). Others point to the 1552 (pre trader contact) recipe which contains two types of peppers/chilies. It is countered that Korea too may have had trader contacts and that the introduction of chilies was not due to invasion by the Japanese. This becomes an important point for the origin story of Kimchi – is it a Japanese introduced product adapted by Korea or is it a truly Korean dish? What is agreed is that chili does not become dominant in Kimchi till the 19th century.

Mass production of Kimchi began in South Korea in 1966 to serve soldiers during the Vietnam war and today there are over 400 industrial kimchi manufacturers in South Korea. However as well as being a food of war it has recently also been an item that has been utilised in the uneasy relations between South Korea and its historical antagonists China and Japan. For instance, Positively Probiotic tells us that in 1996 Japanese factories started making a Japanese version of kimchi that was not made the Korean way, despite being sold under this label. This resulted in massive Korean protests and successful lobbying for kimchi’s 2001 inclusion in the Codex Alimentarius, which was followed, importantly, by its inclusion in 2013 in the UNESCO Lists of Intangible Heritage.

It is ironic that China is the main supplier of kimchi to South Korea. In 2014 98% of Korea’s imported kimchi came from China. For various reasons, mainly to do with Chinese kimchi health scares, Chinese kimchi is said not to be favoured by Koreans and the majority is used by restaurants. Even though origin and heritage is now indisputable, and despite the majority coming from China, Korean kimchi is still used as a weaponised product. This can be seen, for instance, in the Chinese boycott of Korean Kimchi (amongst other South Korean bands, people and goods), in 2017 for their housing of an American missile system. The new ‘sanitation’ rules imposed by China have also led to a huge reduction in the Korean kimchi export market to China, ‘Perhaps the Chinese government is aware that the new rule is strict,” said an official at the (Korean) Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. “I think this is a strategic move aimed at supporting Chinese kimchi makers.’ (Korea Herald)

However, Koreans, it turns out, also are partly responsible for lack of kimchi sales – they simply aren’t kimjang-ing like they used to, as the Korea Herald reports, noting that, domestic consumption has dropped dramatically. Dr. Park Chae-lin of the World Kimchi Institute explains that the reasons for this are that people are eating out more, are eating less salty foods, and have developed a taste for Western foods. And as Park explained, ‘people don’t tend to eat kimchi with spaghetti.’ Mmmm perhaps we can change that?

But let’s get back to the eating and making of kimchi. There are lots of books and sites out there who will give you good advice, and good recipes. I’ve added some above, just click on the link and it will take you to a world of kimchi.

And so to this weeks recipe. There are many, many to choose from, but I know that I am impatient and I suspect some of you are too, so, although true Kimchi is a fermented and preserved dish, there do exist Kimchi recipes which require no fermenting. You can eat it right away, just like salad. Both fresh and fermented kimchi can be used in many recipes, or as a side dish. Geotjeori is basically a kimchi that’s made to be eaten fresh without fermentation and that is what this week’s recipe is. Hyosun from Korean Bapsang has a lovely recipe for Geotjeori but the one below is from BBC GoodFood.

Weekly Recipe

Quick Kimchi