RE-ENVISION is an ongoing series of research memos produced by our associates at Appetite. We trace the cultural genealogies of food from around the world to challenge commonly held beliefs about origin and authenticity.
For many Koreans, all that’s needed for a satisfying meal is a bowl of rice and side of kimchi. The side dish showcases a myriad of flavors and ingredients, indicating that the kimchi is as dynamic as its history. Kimchi is a dish of national pride. The fermented concoction of napa cabbage, Korean radishes, gochu-garu (Korean chili-powder), spring onions, garlic, ginger, and jeotgal (salted seafood) is enjoyed globally as a staple of daily life for those of Korean descent.1 Its omnipresence begs the question: how has kimchi become the Korean culinary monolith that it is today?
The answer to this question is found in kimchi’s extensive history. Its first documented appearance comes from the Sanguozhi, a text written by Chinese historian Chen Shou during Korea’s Three Kingdoms Period in 3rd-century C.E.2 His writings acknowledged that “the people of Goguryeo [Korea] are very good at making fermented foods such as wine, soybean paste, and chotkal (salted and fermented fish)”.3 According to Chen Shou, early Koreans utilised pots for pickling various kimchi. For example, Koreans utilised early technologies such as burying Onggi (kimchi pots) in the summer and winter for refrigeration and ideal temperatures for fermentation.4 Pickling indicates the use of seawater or other mineral-based salt composites, which aid in the production of lactic acid fermentation.5
In the early Three Kingdoms Period (57 B.C.E. – 668 C.E.) kimchi was absent of cabbage, gochu-garu peppers, and other ingredients found in modern variations.6 During the Silla dynasty (57 B.C.E. – C.E. 935) Buddhism arrived in Korea and was adopted as the state religion of the Three Kingdoms. During this time, Korean radishes were used in place of napa-cabbage. Border disputes with China during the Goryeo-Khitan Wars of the Goryeo Period (918-1392 C.E.) and the Mongol Invasion of Korea (1231 C.E.) initiated the transfer of foodstuffs such as pine mushrooms, cucumbers, leeks, cabbage, Indian mustard leaf, bamboo shoots, and garlic.7
Still, the staple gochu-garu pepper was missing from the ingredients list. In lieu of the pepper, Koreans used garlic and ginger for spice and cockscomb blossoms for colour.8 It wasn’t until the subsequent Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910 C.E.) that peppers made their way from the Americas to Korea through Portuguese trade with the Japanese.9 The Imjinwaeran (1592-1598 C.E.) Japanese invasion of Korea opened exchange for peppers. By 1827, increased trading created 92 different types of kimchi spread throughout developing Korea.10 Thus, kimchi’s storied development can be directly related to key moments of Korean national history and international contact.
There are, however, claims that oppose this narrative. Many Korean scholars find inaccuracies in recorded history and believe that the dish is entirely endogenous to Korea. For instance, they claim records of the gochu-garu pepper are found in documents from as early as 850 C.E. in the form of gochujang.11 These scholars believe that because of gochu-garu’s high sugar content, the crop was cultivated earlier than previously thought because the gochu-garu pepper would have required sufficient time to distinguish its flavour profile from its new world relatives.12 However, because there are no instances of trade records of gochu-garu pepper and the crop is not present in any regional cuisines, these scholars’ claims can be swiftly refuted.
Regardless of either account, the cross-cultural exchanges in kimchi are undeniable. The origins of cabbage are Chinese; its domestication occurred around 4,000 B.C.E in Northern China.13 Similarly, ginger is South East Asian as its medicinal uses date back to 4,000 B.C.E. Austronesia.14 Although contested, early forms of kimchi are described as being akin to tsukemono, Japanese pickled vegetables; poa cai, Chinese pickled vegetables, and even German sauerkraut.15 Moreover, it’s likely that the pickling techniques used in kimchi originated in Indian achar around 2400 B.C.E, evident in Buddhist movement along the Silk Road from India to China and finally Korea.16
With examples such as these, we see ingredients and techniques being transferred across boundaries. This is no different from modern kimchi. Kimchi’s importance exists because of the Korean diaspora’s connection to their lineage; as cultural blending continues, the coveted dish will go on to develop into new forms, with newer and more complex multicultural connections.
Christine, and Christine Law. “Korea’s Pride and Joy – Kimchi.” On The Gas | The Art Science & Culture of Food, September 14, 2019. https://onthegas.org/food/korea-s-pride-and-joy-kimchi.
This article speaks to the cultural significance of kimchi to the Korean Diaspora. It initially addresses the process of making kimchi, relating this to the rich history of the Korean people. Next, the article provides insights into the integration of religious beliefs and kimchi. From this, it’s easy to determine the effect different ideologies had on kimchi and perform cross-cultural analysis to track its development. Ultimately, this article indicates the kimchis newfound significance as global cuisine.
“Handbook of Food and Beverage Fermentation Technology.” Google Books. Google. Accessed November 9, 2019. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=uV2Oi0g_TB4C&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=History of Kimchi&ots=dgbyq5Bemx&sig=yJ3r-Lzs3Z-ITpAyAgw07XeJEtI#v=onepage&q=kimchi&f=false.
This book depicts the fermentation process and technology used to make kimchi. Also, the book provides plots and drawings of the ingredients and methods behind the fermentation process. These descriptions enable the reader to visualize Kimchis connections to other fermented dishes around the Afro-Eurasia as methods are directly akin. Additionally, in describing the benefits fermentation process, the history of consumption is made evident through Kimchis’ various health benefits.
“History of Cabbage – Where Does Cabbage Come from?” History of Cabbage – Origins and Domestication of Cabbage. Accessed November 6, 2019. http://www.vegetablefacts.net/vegetable-history/history-of-cabbage/.
This article describes the origins of cabbage. In doing, so it provides a robust history of its uses in various cultures. Thus, it displays the significance of the crop across Afro-Eurasia as cabbage is known to have been consumed in Egypt, China, and Europe.
Janmaat, Alex. “A Short History of a Traditional Korean Food: Kimchi.” Medium. Medium, December 12, 2017. https://medium.com/@alexjanmaat2/a-short-history-of-a-traditional-korean-food-kimchi-ae80ad9542a3.
This article provides a succinct timeline of kimchi. The history tracks the movement of ingredients across borders and indicates the importance of historical events leading to trade. Moreover, this article provides a historical timeline to cross-analyze to view the development of kimchi. Additionally, this article also covers recent developments that cultivated kimchi into the varieties available today.
Lee, Cherl-Ho. “Kimchi; Korean Fermented Vegetable Foods.” Journal of the Korean Society of Food Culture, December 30, 1986. http://www.koreascience.or.kr/article/JAKO198603041496975.page
This journal describes both the technology and history behind the invention of kimchi. By establishing a brief historical background, the journal provides context for technological developments vis-a-vis kimchi-making. Additionally, in outlining the necessary process for kimchi-making, it delves into the chemical makeup of the dish. This acts as a reference to cross-analyze fermentation processes in other recipes, showing that kimchi is a diverse dish with origins across the globe.
Written by Thomas Martinez.
1 Christine, and Christine Law. “Korea’s Pride and Joy – Kimchi.” On The Gas | The Art Science & Culture of Food, September 14, 2019. https://onthegas.org/food/korea-s-pride-and-joy-kimchi.
2 ZenKimchi. “Kimchi: A Short History.” ZenKimchi, November 12, 2018. https://zenkimchi.com/top-posts/kimchi-1-short-history/.
4 “Handbook of Food and Beverage Fermentation Technology.” Google Books. Google. Accessed November 9, 2019.
5 Lee, Cherl-Ho. “Kimchi; Korean Fermented Vegetable Foods.” Journal of the Korean Society of Food Culture, December 30, 1986. http://www.koreascience.or.kr/article/JAKO198603041496975.page
6 Janmaat, Alex. “A Short History of a Traditional Korean Food: Kimchi.” Medium. Medium, December 12, 2017. https://medium.com/@alexjanmaat2/a-short-history-of-a-traditional-korean-food-kimchi-ae80ad9542a3.
8 YouTube. YouTube. Accessed November 9, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cCaJqPlGVvA&list=WL&index=89&t=147s.
9 Janmaat, Alex. “A Short History of a Traditional Korean Food: Kimchi.” Medium. Medium, December 12, 2017. https://medium.com/@alexjanmaat2/a-short-history-of-a-traditional-korean-food-kimchi-ae80ad9542a3.
10 ZenKimchi. “Kimchi: A Short History.” ZenKimchi, November 12, 2018. https://zenkimchi.com/top-posts/kimchi-1-short-history/.
11 Kwon, Dae Young, Dai-Ja Jang, Hye Jeong Yang, and Kyung Rhan Chung. “History of Korean Gochu, Gochujang, and Kimchi.” Journal of Ethnic Foods. No longer published by Elsevier, January 21, 2015. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352618114000043.
13 “History of Cabbage – Where Does Cabbage Come from?” History of Cabbage – Origins and Domestication of Cabbage. Accessed November 6, 2019. http://www.vegetablefacts.net/vegetable-history/history-of-cabbage/.
14 “Ginger.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, November 8, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginger.
15 P, Kshitija. “A Brief History Of The Humble Indian Pickle.” Culture Trip. The Culture Trip, July 20, 2016. https://theculturetrip.com/asia/india/articles/a-brief-history-of-the-humble-indian-pickle/
16 “Religions – Buddhism: Korean Zen Buddhism.” BBC. BBC, October 2, 2002. https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/buddhism/subdivisions/koreanzen.shtml.