Representing Korean Spice – Kimchi

Korea exports culture. No doubt about it. The Korean food culture is as diverse and refined as it is mature. Nothing is quite as emblematic to the peninsula as kimchi. Kimchi, a spicy fermented pickled side dish, has always been the birthright of every Korean since antiquity; relished by every member of the Korean social strata.

From the no-frills meals eaten by peasants and paupers to being the core element of the twelve piece banchan served on bronzeware by haute kitchens to the royal Joseon court.

Since kimchi predates the advent of chili peppers in Korea cuisine, kimchi made during the Three Kingdoms era was simply brined and fermented (with radish serving as the core pickling vegetable) to improve the shelf life of vegetables in cold, infertile lands during winter and early spring.

The following Goryeo period replaced radish with Napa cabbage harvested in late fall. Kimchi underwent a culinary explosion during the Joseon dynasty as soon as chilli and soy sauce found their way into the Korean pantry. With around a hundred varieties being developed during this time, Koreans infused each variety with flavourings in accordance with the regional palate.

Due to the development of kimchi refrigerators, the ubiquitous variety, Tongbaechu (Chinese Cabbage) Kimchi, is available to savour year-round. In contemporary Korean cuisine, kimchi features the power trio of ginger, garlic and gochugaru (a smoky, spicy powder made from a type of Korean chili which is dried in the sun`).

Once fermented, each component gives a funky, addictive spice-laden kick that complements as a side dish to a hearty bowl of rice. Recently, due to the viral spread of Korean culture around the world, this humble Korean sauerkraut has proliferated onto the plates of health conscious Aussies.

Today, kimchi has come a long way from warming the hearts of ancient Koreans battling bitter winters, to warming the hearts of young, cosmopolitan Koreans longing for a serving of Korea’s most sensational side dish.

by Elston D’Souza (elston@em.net.au)