Kimchi is the globally recognized symbol of Korea’s cuisine culture and its representative food item.
The most common type of kimchi is made with Chinese cabbage, but countless varieties are prepared from
a diverse array of ingredients, including young radish, cucumber, and green onion.
Due to recent studies that have confirmed kimchi to be an exceptional health food, it has attracted
growing attention from people the world over. As an integral aspect of everyday life in Korea,
an understanding of kimchi can provide unique insight into its people and culture.
In the past, kimchi would be prepared in autumn, stored in large crocks,
and consumed during the winter. Within earthenware crocks, the kimchi undergoes
a fermentation process that produces its unique taste and rich nutrients,
including lactobacilli and various vitamins.
© Eurocreon
Koreana | Winter 2008
Winter 2008 | Koreana Background
and Development of
Korean Kimchi
Kimchi developed from the practice of preserving vegetables with salt.
Over time, a variety of additional seasonings were included, leading to a decrease
in salt content and more effective fermentation, aided by lactic acid,
which has resulted in the complex character of today’s kimchi.
Jo Jae-sun Professor Emeritus, Department of Food and Science Technology, Kyung Hee University
Koreana | Winter 2008
long with a number of other countries, the cold temperatures of winter in Korea severely limit the growth of
fresh vegetable produce, which has led
to the practice of salting vegetables in
autumn, so that they can be preserved
and consumed during winter. However,
Korea is unique for the inclusion of a
wide variety of ingredients in kimchi,
which contributes to its distinctive aroma and flavorful taste.
Origin of Kimchi
Since prehistoric times, people have
used salt as a seasoning and preservative.
Kimchi ingredients are allowed to naturally ferment, through the formation of
lactic acid, a process that has been used
to preserve vegetables since the dawn of
agricultural cultivation. From its origin
as a food preserved with salt, kimchi
gradually evolved into its current form
through the inclusion of such ingredients as red chili pepper, salted seafood,
meat, and a variety of seasonings.
The East Asian countries of Korea,
China, and Japan all experience cold
weather, starting from autumn and into
winter. Accordingly, people in the region have long prepared and consumed
pickled foods that can be easily stored. In
fact, historical documents indicate that
pickled foods had become commonplace in the three countries, from about
the fifth century to the seventh century.
A fifth-century Chinese text on
agriculture contains detailed records
of various preserved foods, while an
eighth-century Japanese wooden tablet,
which specifies a list of foodstuffs, includes references to pickled cucumbers
and pickled rice bran. Interestingly, the
recipient of this wooden tablet was a
resident of Baekje (18 B.C.-A.D. 660). It
might be presumed that pickled foods
from China crossed the Chinese border
into the Korean kingdom of Goguryeo
(37 B.C.-A.D. 668), then made their way
south into the kingdoms of Baekje and
Silla (57 B.C-A.D. 935), before eventually being introduced into Japan.
Taking into account the contextual
elements, it can be inferred that the history of kimchi began during the Three
Kingdoms period (1st century B.C.-A.D.
7th century), at the latest. In a section on
“Eastern Peoples” of the Chinese historical text, Records of the Three Kingdoms ,
it mentions: “The people of Goguryeo
possess superior technology for brewing liquor, making soy and other sauces,
and preparing pickled seafood. Goguryeo plundered the local products of fish
and salt from Okjeo [Woju].”
From these accounts, you can see
that the people of Goguryeo were already aware of the need for salt, an
essential ingredient of kimchi, and familiar with the fermentation process.
Moreover, the Korean historical text
Historical Record of the Three Kingdoms (Samguksagi , 1145) notes that:
“Unified Silla Kingdom people enjoyed
liquor, soy and other sauces, and pickled
seafood at wedding ceremonies in 683,”
thus confirming the widespread use of
foods preserved with salt. Among the
relevant relics still around today, there is
a stone jar on the grounds of Beopjusa
Temple, installed in 720 during the Unified Silla period, which is believed to
have been a container for storing kimchi.
Nowadays, kimchi is closely associated with its bright redness, which results from the liberal
inclusion of chili pepper. But until quite recently, kimchi was prepared as a basic fermented
vegetable dish, with only scant seasonings, like this white Chinese cabbage kimchi.
© Kimchi Gyeonmunnok , Designhouse
Winter 2008 | Koreana 10 Koreana | Winter 2008
This etymology is a reflection of kimchi’s uniqueness among pickled foods,
in which the vegetables, along with the
liquid produced by the fermentation,
are both maintained and consumed.
A historical text from the late 16th
century mentions 11 types of kimchi.
Still, aside from explanations of kimchi
being made with radish, cabbage, wax
gourd, fern bracken, and soy beans, as
well as a watery variety made by soaking
radish in brine, there is no specific mention of the use of red pepper at that time.
Today’s Kimchi
The making of kimchi today calls
for the basic ingredients of Chinese cabbage, red pepper, and salted seafood.
Chinese cabbage is the primary component of kimchi, which is seasoned with
red pepper and salted seafood. Nonetheless, it was not until the 17th century
that Chinese cabbage, red pepper, and
salted seafood became the primary ingredients of kimchi. It was during the
200-year period, from the late 17th century to the late 19th century, that a wide
variety of vegetables and seasonings,
such as red pepper, green onion, garlic,
© Kimchi Gyeonmunnok , Designhouse
generally involved only limited ingredients, such as a vegetable or two, which
were preserved with salt.
There was a kind of literary renaissance during the Joseon period
(1392-1910), that led to a proliferation of texts being published across the
country, which included publications on
agricultural and culinary subjects, such
as a detailed overview of kimchi-related
developments. The early Joseon literary figure Seo Geo-jeong (1420-1488)
was the first to mention the seasonings
used in kimchi in one of his poems:
“We plant turnips, radishes, lettuce, and
dropwort in the back field, along with
ginger, garlic, and green onions, and we
make kimchi with five seasonings.” In
particular, garlic has been a basic food
item of Koreans for so long that it even
appears in the myth of Dangun, who is
said to have descended from heaven to
found the kingdom of Gojoseon (Old
Joseon) in 2333 B.C.
The term “dimchae” was first cited
in a 1525 medical text, in reference to a
type of pickled vegetable (“chimchae”),
in which the vegetables were immersed
in liquid, that later became “kimchi.”
© Kimchi Gyeonmunnok , Designhouse
Historical Accounts
The first mention of “kimchi” can
be found in historical records from the
Goryeo period (918-1392). Guidelines
on etiquette included a list of kimchi
types that should be part of the food
offerings prepared for ancestral rituals: dropwort kimchi, bamboo-shoot
kimchi, turnip kimchi, and garlic-chive
kimchi. The Goryeo literary figure Yi
Gyu-bo (1168-1241) included a poem
in his anthology, Collected Works of
Chancellor Yi of Korea (Donggugisanggukjip ), which described the making of
pickled turnips and the preparation and
eating of a certain bland kimchi.
The Goryeo period medical journal,
Emergency Remedies of Korean Medicine (Hyangyakgugeupbang ), identifies
cucumber, wax gourd, garlic chives,
curled mallow, lettuce, green onion, and
radish as the main ingredients of kimchi. In addition, a number of poems,
from the 13th century to the 15th century, include references to pickled foods
and kimchi, indicating that kimchi had
attained considerable popularity during
the Goryeo period. However, it should
be noted that the kimchi of this period
ginger, and salted seafood, were used to
make kimchi.
Chinese cabbage has been cited in
medical texts as a vegetable with medicinal benefits. It appears to have been
widely cultivated from the mid-16th
century, and was likely used for the making of kimchi. Red pepper is thought
to have been introduced from Japan
around the time of the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592-1598). A record
from 1613 states: “Red pepper has been
brought over from Japan and it is poisonous.” However, it not until sometime
later that red pepper became an ingredient of kimchi, because of a lack of awareness of its usefulness as a seasoning.
The key factors that led to the inclusion of red pepper in kimchi were related to the development of agricultural
technology and occurrence of natural
phenomena, such as flood and drought,
which resulted in serious food shortages.
Based on a 1765 account, which noted,
“these days, red pepper is being cultivated in large amounts, and appearing
in the market in large amounts as well,”
it seems that red pepper was widely used
in the 18th century.
The first reference to the use of cabbage and red pepper in kimchi is found
in the Supplement to Forestry Administration (Jeungbosallimgyeongje , 1766),
which included the recipes for making
some 20 varieties of kimchi, including
cabbage kimchi. The Women’s Quarters
Series (Gyuhapchongseo , 1809) also explained how to season kimchi with salted seafood. Various types of preserved
seafood had been around since the
Three Kingdoms period, but it was only
in the mid-1700s that it began to be used
to make kimchi. It was also found that
the addition of preserved seafood allowed the amount of salt to be reduced.
By the early 18th century, the making of kimchi included Chinese cabbage,
red pepper, garlic, and salted seafood,
resulting in a form similar to the popular varieties of today. Yet, there are
countless variations of kimchi, based on
the ingredients used and the region of
its preparation, along with the continuous adoption of innovative twists. As for
kimchi, which remains deeply rooted in
Korea’s everyday lifestyle, it might well
lead the way of the efforts to globalize
Korean food.
It is believed that “kimchi”
was derived from two Chinese
characters, “chimchae”(沈菜),
which together meant pickled
vegetables. The pronunciation of
the two Chinese characters
underwent a series of change,
from “chimchae” to “dimchae,”
and eventually the current
2 The first cookbook written in the Korean Hangeul alphabet,
by Lady Jang (1598-1680), Understanding the Flavor of Food
contains recipes for several varieties of kimchi, including types for
everyday meals and those for special occasions that
called for high-quality ingredients.
3 Earthenware crocks, for the fermentation and storage of kimchi,
have developed regional characteristics. In the south,
kimchi crocks were short and rounded, while narrower forms
would be found in northern areas, so that larger volumes
could be buried in the ground.
© Kimchi Gyeonmunnok , Designhouse
1 Collected Works of Chancellor Yi of Korea, an anthology of
essays by the Goryeo period writer Yi Gyu-bo (1168-1241),
includes information on the preparation of white radish kimchi,
which is thought to be the earliest written mention of kimchi.
Winter 2008 | Koreana 11