Kimchi, a staple of Korean households for generations, has gained superstar status in the kitchen, and it’s easy to see why. With a complex flavor, variety of uses, and an all-star nutritional scorecard, kimchi's appeal is broad and deep. Made from vegetables, garlic, ginger, and fish sauce, it hits a range of flavors—sweet, sour, and spicy—and works as a condiment, an ingredient, a dip, and a side dish all on its own.
Flavor profile: sour, spicy and/or sweet
Nutritional information: fermented food, contains probiotics
What Is Kimchi?
Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish whose components can vary but usually include some combination of vegetables, garlic, ginger, chili peppers, salt, and fish sauce. The mix is pickled and fermented, which was originally a way to preserve the vegetables for the winter months. Cabbage is the most common vegetable used to make kimchi although carrots, radish, cucumber, and scallions are also frequently used, too. There are hundreds of kimchi recipes that vary depending on the region and season in which they are produced, and it's very easy to make it a vegan dish by keeping all the ingredients plant-based.
Kimchi is available commercially and isn't expensive, but it can be fun to put together your own based on preferences. It can take a little bit of time to prepare the vegetables, but like other fermented foods (e.g., bread, beer, and kombucha), it's mostly a hands-off experience. It will develop its flavors and its nutritional profile during that process. Kimchi keeps for a while, making it an economical, versatile, and easy-to-prepare food item to have in the fridge.
In Korean culture, kimchi is served with almost every meal, including breakfast. Not only is kimchi eaten by itself as a side dish or appetizer but it is also used as an ingredient in a variety of dishes. Kimchi jjigae, a traditional stew made with kimchi, is perhaps one of its most popular uses. The fermented food is also used to flavor fried rice, stir-fry dishes, noodles, sandwiches, and even pizza.
What Does It Taste Like?
Kimchi’s flavor is complex and varies widely depending on the recipe. The main flavor notes you’ll find in kimchi include sour, spicy, and umami. The flavor will also vary depending on the vegetables you choose, the length of fermentation, and the amount of salt or sugar used.
Because kimchi is a fermented dish, its most prominent flavor is typically sour. Lactic acid produced by bacteria during fermentation creates a tangy, pungent flavor similar to that of sauerkraut. The garlic, if present in kimchi, intensifies in taste during fermentation. Kimchi can also be spicy, depending on how much pepper is used and what kind, and may have ingredients such as fish paste, fish sauce, or anchovies; anything fish oriented will give it a strong umami note. Kimchi made without fish will have a lighter, fresher taste, especially if it's made with radishes or cucumbers.
The possibilities are pretty limitless since kimchi lends itself very easily to innovation. It offers a great textural and flavor counterpoint to an ingredient such as tofu, which is a culinary blank slate that takes on the flavors of whatever you cook with it. You can even pickle eggs in kimchi, turn it into a savory pancake for an appetizer or light lunch, or douse it with some sriracha for heat. It's so utilitarian, it'll take nearly any culinary task you put it up to. If you want to make it vegetarian, just leave off the fish-related ingredients, or search for recipes without them.
Where to Buy Kimchi
Kimchi's popularity has been steadily increasing around the world and it can now be found in many grocery stores. Kimchi is usually sold in the refrigerated produce section or near refrigerated pickles and sauerkraut. Kimchi can also be purchased at Asian markets, restaurants, and sushi bars. Many restaurants make their own kimchi and will sometimes sell it on the side.
Making kimchi at home is easy, requires only a few ingredients and just a few days to ferment.
Kimchi will keep well in the fridge for several months. It will still be safe to eat after that point, but the flavor will intensify and become more pungent, and the veggies may lose some of their crispness.
Nutrition and Benefits
Kimchi is prized for its nutritional benefits. Because kimchi is a vegetable-based dish, it contains ample fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and is low in calories. Lactobacillus, the same bacteria used to make yogurt, is used in the fermentation of kimchi, and it's valued for its ability to aid in digestion and keep a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut. The average Korean consumes nearly 40 pounds of kimchi per year, and many attribute the good health of Korea's citizens to the many benefits of kimchi.
Hongu N, Kim AS et al. Korean kimchi: promoting healthy meals through cultural tradition. Journal of Ethnic Foods. 2017;4(3):172-180. doi:10.1016/j.jef.2017.08.005
Rezac S, Kok CR, Heermann M, Hutkins R. Fermented Foods as a Dietary Source of Live Organisms. Front Microbiol. 2018;9:1785. doi:10.3389/fmicb.2018.01785