Source: The World Institute of Kimchi
Kimchi, Hand-in-Hand with Korean History
Kimchi developed and transformed organically throughout its long history and various healthy ingredients. East Asian countries, including Korea, Japan, and China, have developed agricultural culture. Agriculture allowed them to harvest grains and enjoy them as main dishes. Therefore, carbohydrates were the primary source of nutrition consumed by East Asians and side dishes for added taste. Pickled vegetables were ideal for grains and could be stored for long periods. Korea has four distinct seasons, so it developed its one and only fermentation technology to customize pickled vegetables to fluctuating natural environments.
Kimchi’s Beginnings circa Goryeo Dynasty (918~1392)
In the Goryeo dynasty, kimchi transformed in form and purpose as our ancestors enjoyed delectable varieties of kimchi. They added different ingredients and spices, such as garlic, green onions, radish, and soy sauce. Further, they experimented with even creating brine-based kimchi, such as dongchimi, mul-kimchi, nabak- kimchi, and jang-kimchi. For their love of hearty soup dishes, Koreans have mastered long-term storage with less salt by using spices. This experimentation formed the subculture of brine-based kimchi, such as the refreshing dongchimi.
Kimchi Varieties circa Joseon Dynasty (1392~)
Kimchi goes through a significant transformation during the Joseon dynasty. Nongsajikseol(1429), a book on agriculture issued during the reign of Sejong the Great, marked the start of the publication of agricultural books, which contributed considerably to the development of farming technology. Consequently, kimchi’s ingredients changed thanks to this agricultural progress immensely. Kimchi’s ingredients extended remarkably due to advancements in vegetable cultivation methods and imported vegetables from countries abroad. Korean kimchi’s genealogy displays a significant transformation made in this period by mixing pickles with fermented seafood.
According to records and relics, our ancestors enjoyed fermented seafood from the Three Kingdoms Period (57 BCE – 668 CE) at the latest. Still, in this period, Koreans started to be more creative by making a never-before-seen dish with pickles fermented seafood mixed all together. This new experiment added spice, a deeper flavor, and even animal protein to the pickled vegetables, making the dish heartier and healthier. Another innovative creation was born by adding chili powder. Before Korea used chili powder as a food ingredient, kimchi commonly contained refreshing and non-spicy brine like dongchimi. However, this changed in the mid-Joseon period as red peppers became the signature ingredient of kimchi. Afterward, kimchi’s symbolic color became red. When making kimchi, red peppers were used or substituted with spicy flavors like Sichuan peppers and Japanese peppers.
Kimchi meets Red Peppers (Mid-Joseon Period: 16th Century)
Culinary kimchi and seokbak-ji, mixed with various vegetables, seafood, fermented seafood, were in fashion in the late Joseon dynasty. Popular particularly among noble families, seokbak-ji’s deep spicy flavor comprising various ingredients made it a culinary masterpiece. The same ingredients and procedures are used inside today’s cabbage kimchi spice. Introducing the napa cabbage kimchi became a significant inflection point in kimchi’s history of change. We can enjoy kimchi today thanks to the successful genetic transformation of cabbage in the early nineteenth century. At this period, when the recipe for making napa cabbage kimchi was introduced, cabbage became the main ingredient for various types of kimchi. At the end of the nineteenth century, Korea successfully cultivated semi-heading Chinese cabbages, full and abundant leaves. This cabbage comprised multiple layers of leaves and displayed a tight ball-shaped form, so people called it the “head-type cabbage.” Since then, Korea has started to apply tasty spices between the layers of cabbage leaves and ferment them afterward. This tradition continues until today.