What Kimchi Is, Its Flavor, Nutrition, Uses, and Availability

Glass of homemade Korean Kimchi with chinese cabbage, scallions and carrots
Westend61 / Getty Images

Kimchi is one of the hottest food trends today and it’s easy to see why. With a complex flavor, a variety of uses and an all-star nutritional scorecard, kimchi seems to have it all.

What Is Kimchi?

Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish made with vegetables, garlic, ginger, chili peppers, salt, and fish. 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 radish, cucumber, and scallions are also quite common. There are hundreds of kimchi recipes that vary depending on the region and season in which they are produced.

Kimchi's Flavor

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, length of fermentation and the amount of salt or sugar used.

  • Sour: Because kimchi is a fermented dish, it has a prominent sour flavor. Lactic acid produced by bacteria during fermentation creates a tangy, pungent flavor similar to that of sour kraut.
  • Spicy: Depending on how much red pepper is used, kimchi can range from mild to very spicy. The red pepper powder also gives kimchi its classic red color.
  • Fish: Many kimchi recipes include some sort of fish product whether it’s a fermented fish paste, fish sauce or anchovies. Fish ingredients give the kimchi a strong umami flavor. Kimchi made without fish will have a lighter, fresher taste.
  • Salty vs. Sweet: The amount of salt and sugar used kimchi varies from recipe to recipe. Some varieties are quite salty while others are decidedly sweet.
  • Garlic: Garlic is a strong component in the flavor of kimchi. The garlic intensifies during fermentation to yield a deep, heady base flavor.
  • Vegetables: The type of vegetables used to make kimchi will alter the taste dramatically. Kimchi made with cabbage might be quite strong whereas kimchi made with cucumber or radish will be lighter.

Kimchi Uses

In Korean culture, kimchi is served with almost every meal. 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. Kimchi is also used to flavor fried rice, stir-fry, noodles, sandwiches, and even pizza.

Kimchi Nutrition

Kimchi is prized for its nutritional benefits. Because kimchi is a vegetable-based dish, it is high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals yet low in calories. Lactobacillus, the same bacteria used to make yogurt, is used in the fermentation of kimchi. Lactobacillus is valued for its ability to aid in digestion and keep a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut. With the average Korean consuming nearly 40 pounds of kimchi per year, many attribute the good health of Korea's citizens to the many benefits of kimchi.

Availability of 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 sour kraut. In grocery stores, kimchi retails for about five dollars for a 16 oz. jar. Kimchi can also be purchased at Asian markets, restaurants and sushi bars. Many restaurants make their own kimchi and will sometimes sell their house-made kimchi on the side.

Making kimchi at home is easy, requires only a few ingredients and just a few days to ferment.