Korean cuisine is something I feel more people should try*. It is the most rustic of the asian cuisines. Grilled meats, hearty seafood soups and stews, strange but fantastic savoury pancakes and a condiment that goes into everything.
Kimchi or Gimchi or Kimchee or Kim Chi depending how you want to spell it is more than just a staple of Korean cuisine, it’s a national obsession. There are literally dozens of different varieties of this most times hot, sometimes briny, fermented, napa cabbage based condiment.
Kimchi is usually made out of Napa Cabbage, green onions, radish, ginger, garlic, red chillies, and some kind of briny or fishy base. Kimchi in Korea is very region. Some areas like their kimchi less spicy and more salty, some use anchovy sauce or fish sauce as a base, kimchi from some areas will make the back of your eyes burn. It all depends on the regional cuisine and what kind of flavour profile the kimchi needs to compliment.
Kimchi also has seasonal styles. As the cabbage is harvested once and Kimchi is a fermented dish throughout the year the flavour and style will change because of the different lengths of fermentation. Also different seasonal veggies are used to accent the kimchi. Spring kimchi has little to no real fermentation and shades more towards a herbal flavour. Summer has cucumber and radish and a little stronger flavour, fall kimchi moves towards salty and briny flavours as the weather cools. And winter kimchi is the heartiest. It usually has a variety of nuts, more heat and a very strong fermented flavour, essentially trying to pack as much energy into the condiment as possible.
So what is kimchi like to a western palate? The best way I can describe it’s texture is a chunky and more watery version of coleslaw which has a very deep and rich flavour to it. The heat can range from fiery to subtle but it’s not cheap** front of the palate heat it’s more something that comes on fifteen seconds after you chew and swallow.
Kimchi also is touted for it’s health benefits. It’s very high fibre, and low calorie. It contains garlic, and ginger which have natural antiseptic qualities and have been proven to decrease inflammation and boost the immune system. The lactic acid produced in the fermentation process aids digestion, and has anti cancer links. Spicy food actually helps battle depression and chronic pain as specific parts of the brain is stimulated by the pain and heat reaction of the capsacin in the peppers.
I didn’t want to do an over arching piece on all Korean cuisine because I felt like it may end up like my Sushi articles which was much too long. So I felt as if talking about Kimchi would explain to someone who may one day try Korean food would get at least the logical through line that is Kimchi.
*Sometimes I like to make my reader squirm with these pieces. Oysters, and Bone Marrow, were written to dare people to try something out there and a little bit off putting. Korean cuisine is the most accessible of the asian cuisines in my opinion, as long as you can handle some heat.
** Cheap heat is something I may have made up or I may have stolen from someone, I truly can’t remember. I describe it as that flavour you get when someone just tosses Cayenne Pepper into or onto a dish to give it heat without actually developing it’s flavour. Cheap heat hits you right on the tip of your tongue and burns your palate out. Good heat comes on slower, it burns in the back and sides of your tongue and mouth and it can be painful hot but it never really impedes flavour. It comes with developing your flavour and heat over time and not just tossing hot stuff in at the end in a cheap attempt to achieve heat.