The Origin of Kimchi
Korea has its own distinctive aroma. What is this fragrance of Korea, and where does it come from?
The fragrance of a country or region comes mainly from the local cuisine, which derives its unique savor from particular spices, fermented foods and liquids, or ways of cooking with all of these. The dishes that give Korea its special fragrance are primarily fermented foods, especially the various kinds of kimchi made with fermented vegetables and the various kinds of paste made with fermented beans. Above all, it is the pungent smell of kimchi that first assaults the senses of the visitor to Korea.
However, those who get accu-stomed to the strong flavor of kimchi soon find that they can't get enough of it. Moreover, kimchi is becoming more and more popular as its health-giving properties come to be better understood.
For instance, there is a growing interest in the efficacy of kimchi in preventing geriatric disorders, and the high fiber content of its main ingredients, vegetables and red chili, helps keep obesity at bay.
There are more kinds of kimchi in Korea than there are cheeses in France. Indeed, there are so many varieties that no one knows them all. One university professor has identified more than 100 different ingredients used in making kimchi, 36 of them used as main ingredients. And since these ingredients are combined and matured a little differently in each kind of kimchi and in each family tradition, it is impossible to say exactly how many varieties of kimchi exist.
The culture of a region develops as the people who live there adapt to the natural environment, especially after they begin to practice agriculture.
Unlike Western or African cuisine, Korean cooking makes a clear distinction between main dishes and side dishes. Rice and other grains form the staple of the main dishes, which are enjoyed all the more through the accompaniment of side dishes made of vegetables, salted seafood, fish, or meat.
To ensure a supply of food through the long Korean winter, vegetables and fish began to be preserved, at first probably by drying. However, it was also found possible to pickle vegetables in seawater, and it is thought that as the supply of salt became relatively reliable, people learned how to keep vegetables fresh for long periods by salting. The earliest documentary evidence is found in China's first anthology of poetry, the Book of Odes, which is believed to have been compiled between 2,600 and 3,000 years ago. In this book appears a Chinese character meaning salting, which shows that a prototype of kimchi already existed at this early date. But the alchemy of making kimchi came to be more highly developed in Korea than in China, and the reason lies in the natural environment.
The visitor to Korea cannot fail to be impressed by the wide, fertile tidal flats that stretch along the southwestern coast. These mudflats teem with life all year round, and except in mid-winter, they provide a food source that can be harvested even without modern equipment.
Although the basis of kimchi is the lactic-acid fermentation of vegetables pickled in salt, the liberal addition of fish and seafood can assist the fermentation process and provide nutrients that would otherwise be scarce in winter, such as protein and calcium.
The Korean people suffered greatly from the lack of food until about the mid-1960s. Since then, the amazing growth of the Korean economy has raised the annual income per capita to $10,000, yet compared to other countries of a similar income level, it is surprising how few Koreans are overweight. Many believe that the explanation lies in the fact that Koreans eat a lot of kimchi.
They point out that kimchi contains a high proportion of fiber (from the vegetables), capsaicin which is said to burn fat (from the chili), generous amounts of calcium (from the salted seafood), appropriate quantities of high-grade protein (from fish and seafood), and an abundance of vitamins (from the vegetables). They also worry about the increasing incidence of obesity among the younger generation who tend to eschew kimchi in favor of imported instant foods.