How Kimchi Came to Be Korea’s National Dish - Sake Japanese Korean Bistro in Richardson
Updated: Oct 7, 2019
Ask any Korean what is the definitive Korean dish is, and odds are they will tell you that it’s kimchi! This traditional pickled vegetable dish has been around for literally thousands of years in Korea, and is still an essential staple today. There are hundreds of varieties of kimchi that vary in popularity by season and region in Korea. It can be argued that there are as many ways to make kimchi as there are people who make kimchi; the same type of kimchi can be endlessly customized by individual technique, flavor and ingredient preferences. But how did kimchi come to be the indispensable mainstay of Korean food that it still is today?
Korea is located in northeast Asia and has cold winters, mountainous landscape covering much of the country, and few fertile plains. Ancient Koreans were faced with the crucial task of preserving food throughout the winter in order to survive, and preserving food with salt was already a common practice by the period of the Three Kingdoms (57 BCE to 668 AD). It was around this time that other countries began taking note of Korean people’s particular skill in fermenting many different types of food including wine, soybean paste, fish and vegetables. When Buddhism caught on throughout the country around this period, kimchi (virtually any type of fermented and seasoned vegetable) became particularly prevalent as Buddhism fostered a vegetarian lifestyle.
Historically, Korean people prepared kimchi by fermenting vegetables in large earthenware jars and storing them in the ground throughout the winter. It was a highly effective way to preserve food long before refrigeration existed. As a big added bonus, kimchi retains many nutrients and also develops healthy bacteria from fermentation. Radish was commonly used because it was a local product. Once trade began to expand during the Koryeo Period (918–1392AD), many new vegetables and seasonings were introduced to the country and quickly implemented into Korean cooking and food preparation, including kimchi.
Kimchi varieties and techniques expanded hugely throughout the next several centuries. Entirely new methods of pickling were developed, using soy sauce instead of salt. Seasonings that are now thought to be basic kimchi ingredients, such as garlic and chili pepper, were introduced for the first time. Though many non-Koreans think of kimchi as always being red and spicy, historically kimchi was actually white and not spicy at all, until chili was introduced sometime during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). The most well known type of kimchi today - red, spicy and made with Chinese cabbage - is believed to have been invented a mere 200-300 years ago. Considering the long history of kimchi, spicy cabbage kimchi is a newcomer to the kimchi scene!
Kimchi originated out of necessity and survival in the Korean peninsula thousands of years ago, and has since survived to become an absolute necessity and mainstay of Korean food and culture. Over thousands of years, kimchi and their makers have adapted to drastically changing situations, enriching and expanding the flavors and potential of kimchi. From simple, humble origins to an essential national dish, it’s fascinating to see how kimchi has become celebrated and embraced not just in Korea, but worldwide!