How Kimchi Came to Be Korea’s National Dish
Updated: Apr 11
Ask any Korean what the definitive Korean dish is, and chances are they will tell you that it is kimchi!
This traditional salted and fermented vegetable dish has been around for literally thousands of years in Korea, and is still an essential staple today. There are hundreds of varieties of kimchi that vary in popularity by season and region throughout Korea. There are as many methods of kimchi-making as there are people who make kimchi – the same type of kimchi can be endlessly customized by individual technique, flavor, and ingredient preferences. But how did kimchi come to be the indispensable mainstay of Korean food that it still is today?
A Food Borne of Necessity
Korea is located in northeast Asia and has cold winters, mountainous landscape covering much of the country, and sparse fertile plains. Ancient Korean peoples were faced with the crucial task of preserving food throughout the winters in order to survive, and preserving food with salt was already a common practice by the period of the Three Kingdoms (57 BCE to 668 AD). It was around this time that other countries began taking note of Koreans’ particular skill in fermenting different types of foods and beverages, including wines, soybean paste, fish and vegetables. When Buddhism – and its vegetarian lifestyle – caught on throughout the country around this period, kimchi became far more prevalent.
Historically, Korean people prepared kimchi by fermenting vegetables in large earthenware jars and storing them in the ground throughout the winter. It was a highly effective way to preserve food long before refrigeration existed. As an added bonus, kimchi retains many nutrients and develops probiotics and healthy bacteria from fermentation. Korean radish (aka Joseon radish,
or mu) was originally very commonly used because it was a native root vegetable. Once trade began to expand during the Koryeo Period (918–1392AD), many new vegetables and seasonings were introduced and quickly implemented into Korean cooking and food preparation, including kimchi.
The Modern Era of Kimchi
Kimchi varieties and techniques expanded hugely throughout the next several centuries. Entirely new methods of pickling were developed, such as using soy sauce instead of salt. Seasonings that are now thought to be basic kimchi ingredients, such as garlic and red chili pepper, were introduced for the first time during this period! Though many think of kimchi as always being red and spicy, historically, kimchi was actually white and not spicy at all until chili was introduced sometime during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).
The most well known type of kimchi today - red, spicy and made with napa cabbage - is believed to have been invented a mere 200-300 years ago. Considering the very long history of kimchi, red & spicy napa cabbage kimchi is a newcomer to the kimchi scene!
Today, kimchi is a staple side dish (or banchan) at virtually every Korean table, including at Korean BBQ restaurants like ours here in Dallas, TX! There are usually around 2-4 different types of kimchi served at Korean BBQ restaurants, and your table might include red napa cabbage (baechu) kimchi, red cubed radish (kkakdugi) kimchi, cucumber (oi) kimchi, or white (baek) kimchi. Kimchi is also fantastic when cooked, and some fantastic ways to enjoy it with Korean BBQ are the delicious Korean kimchi pancake appetizer, or bold and savory kimchi jjgae stew. You can also toss baechu kimchi right on the charcoal grill! Let the kimchi cook until it has a bit of a char or caramelization on both sides (flipping it once), remove it from the grill and pair it with pieces of barbequed galbi or samgyupsal – grilled kimchi is a mouthwateringly perfect complement to grilled Korean BBQ meats!
Kimchi originated out of necessity and survival in the Korean peninsula thousands of years ago, and has since survived to become an absolute staple and mainstay of Korean food and culture.
Over thousands of years, kimchi and their makers have adapted to drastically changing situations, enriching and expanding the flavors and potential of kimchi. From simple, humble origins to an essential national dish, it’s fascinating to see how kimchi has become celebrated and embraced not just in Korea, but worldwide!