When did Koreans start eating kimchi? The history of kimchi goes back to at least the Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392). A vast collection of poems and essays by Yi Gyu-bo (1168-1241), Donggukisanggukjip in 13 books of 53 volumes, mentions “pickled radish,” an early type of kimchi. It was during the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) when Koreans started putting chili powder, salted fish, and garlic in kimchi like today.
It was also most probably in the Joseon period when Koreans started doing gimjang, a custom of making a lot of kimchi for winter in advance. Back then, it wasn’t easy to get fresh vegetables in winter, so when autumn gave way to winter, Koreans made enough kimchi to last the entire season.
Although the gimjang kimchi was made in early winter, the whole process in fact covered the entire year. Koreans pickled fish in spring, prepared chili peppers and garlic in early autumn, and grew vegetables for more than half a year, all for gimjang. Gimjang kimchi was a major source of vitamins in winter as a main side dish.
The custom of gimjang is still alive, and it is a big family event. However, it is easy to get fresh vegetables in winter now, so the Korean dietary lifestyle has changed. Not as many families do gimjang anymore, especially as it requires a lot of time and effort to make enough kimchi for winter all at once. But, many households still make kimchi in small amounts every now and then. Many charity groups and public offices do gimjang to give away the gimjang kimchi to the needy such as elderly people living alone, boys and girls who are the heads of households, and single-parent families.
The world meets kimchi
In April this year, the leading actors and the director of the Hollywood blockbuster Battleship visited Korea to promote the movie’s world premiere.
Director Peter Berg expressed his great affection for the country when he admitted that he was a kimchi-lover.“I’m addicted to kimchi. I’m happy to eat kimchi every day. I think I’ve eaten more than 24 pounds of kimchi since I arrived in Korea,” he said at a press conference. After his visit, Peter Berg became popular among the Korean press.
The popularity of kimchi is now global. The enticing flavor of spicy yet savory kimchi has long been loved by Koreans, but the taste was considered too strong for non-Koreans. However, the appealing taste of kimchi has finally won people over all around the world.
Almost every Asian supermarket in major cities sells imported Korean kimchi or locally made kimchi. But the global popularity and demand for kimchi has been proven as major supermarkets in the U.S., such as Whole Foods, Wal-Mart, and Safeway, have begun to stock packaged kimchi on their shelves. Kimchi can also be spotted at the buffets of major global hotels in the salad section as more people ask for kimchi. In January, Executive Chef Toni Robertson of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York invited Korean chefs, including a kimchi expert, to the hotel to teach him and seven other chefs from top-class hotels around the city how to make kimchi.
The Korean government initiated various projects and events to improve awareness of kimchi throughout the world beyond big cities. One of the recent successes is the Kimchi Bus Project led by three young men. Last year, these men set off on a journey to 36 countries for 400 days in their mini bus to hold free tasting events.
They introduced kimchi to locals and cooked dishes made with kimchi and local ingredients. In addition to featuring kimchi dishes, they also promoted the nutritious health aspects of kimchi and Hansik. They finished their trip in Europe and are currently in the U.S., organizing tasting events in New York and Washington, D.C. The Kimchi Bus Project will come to an end when the bus returns to Korea in late November.
Kimchi on the tables of global villagers
Kimchi is going global. More and more people around the world are craving it, and have begun to develop their own kimchi using new ingredients and eating it in different manners. As it is fused with other foods, it is recreated as a new variety of food. Korilla BBQ, a food truck that has enjoyed explosive popularity in New York City this year, tweets its location so that people can come to the truck for its yummy delicacies. More than 18,000 Twitter followers are crazy about the “Porkinator” (a pork taco with kimchi) and “Wonder Bird” (a chicken taco with kimchi).
Angelo Sosa, a popular chef cast on American TV food show Top Chef, sells kimchi fried rice, kimchi grits, and many other fusion Korean foods with kimchi at his restaurant SocialEatz. Jean-Georges Voongerichten, a world-renowned chef who has over 20 restaurants around the world, sells kimchi hotdogs at Mercer Kitchen. His interest in Korean food is evidenced in his other culinary creations, including the steak with gochujang butter he sells at Perry St. Dubbed one of the three greatest chefs in the world, Pierre Gagnaire developed French dishes by adding his own less salty and spicy version of kimchi to pigeon and foiegras.
It’s not only non-Koreans who are rolling up their sleeves to make new versions of kimchi to better suit their palates. Koreans, as always, are applying their creativity to making kimchi with a novel appearance and taste. Kim Sun-ja, CEO of Hansung Food and a master maker of kimchi, developed bite-sized kimchi rolls such as mini roll bossam kimchi and kkaennip yangbaechu mari kimchi (kimchi rolls wrapped with sesame and cabbage leaves).
“Kimchi looks simple, but it is an excellent fermented food for wellbeing, in which a variety of elements are intricately harmonized,” wrote French chef Pierre Gagnaire in his contribution for Korea Focus. “Kimchi can have a wide array of flavors, aromas, and textures, depending on the degree of fermentation.” Yes, Master Chef! Kimchi has great potential for endless transformation. Different vegetables will render differences in taste and nutrients, but you can use any ingredients for kimchi and you can fuse it with almost all kinds of foods to develop novel dishes.
Sooner or later, people around the world will have their own versions of kimchi to enjoy.
*Article from Korea Magazine (November 2012)