Signature Dishes : Kimchi
Kimchi is one of those food that represents a country. When you hear the word, "kimchi," it's automatically associated with Korea. That's why Koreans are so proud of this culinary tradition.
What is kimchi? Kimchi is a word used to describe any number of pickled or fermented vegetables. The most common and well-known is the kind made from napa cabbages (called "baechu kimchi"), but there are nearly 200 documented varieties, with regional, seasonal and familial varieties, as well.
Kimchi has been made on the Korean peninsula for thousands of years. It came down from the Chinese way of pickling, but Koreans adopted it as their national dish. The earliest forms of kimchi were made from only napa cabbages and beef stock. However, as cooking techniques developed and new ingredients (like garlic and chile pepper) were introduced from the Americas, kimchi evolved into the complex dish that it is today.
Kimchi evolved as a way to preserve the bounty of the fall harvest during the cold winters. Vegetables were preserved in large clay pots and then buried in the snow before the advent of refrigeration. Now, in modern society, Kimchi is made in glass jars and kept in kimchi refrigerators that keep the jars at the optimum temperature for preservation.
The flavor of the kimchi depends on the ingredients used, the amount of salt and the level of spiciness. A fiercely regional and personal dish, Koreans will swear that the kimchi from their region is the true way to make it and swear even harder that their mom's kimchi is the best. Of course, it's all a matter of taste.
Kimchi from the northern provinces tend to have less salt and were usually less spicy, because they had colder winters. Varieties from the southern parts of the peninsula had more salt, more chile powder and included salted seafood, like brined anchovy or shrimp. Some people add nuts or even fruit to their kimchi, while others like to keep it simple with just vegetables, garlic, chile powder and salt.
Not only is it a regional dish, but it also varies with the seasons. Spring kimchis tend to be made from herbs and young vegetables. Quite often, these kimchis were not fermented but eaten fresh, almost like a side salad. Summer kimchis are made with the vegetables abundant during the hot days, like cucumber and radishes. Autumn kimchis are the most common, and include the popular napa cabbage varieties. Winter kimchis include "donchimi," a watery kimchi made with preserved daikon and served cold.
Korea's most popular side dish ("banchan"), kimchi has the added benefit of being good for you. It's low in calories and high in fiber and nutrients, including vitamins C, B and A, carotene, calcium and iron. It also contains a number of lactic acid bacteria (the kind found in fermented foods like yogurt), which helps aid in digestion.
Those unique and delicious flavors can be easily found in restaurants in even non-Asian supermarkets worldwide. Bring a jar of it home today to enjoy as a banchan or even as an ingredient in your fried rice, stew or to spice up your hamburgers.