Museum of Kind 03: Kimchikan

The rise of aesthetic coffee shops is intricately linked to two aspects of Korean culture. First, it plays into the Korean social life. It is not so much the drink itself, but rather the social function of the cafe. Because of Korea’s group orientation, people will usually (and willingly) get together somewhere rather than stay at home. Invitation to a Korean house is sacrosanct; you don’t just drop into someone’s house just because you felt like it or you are bored. The second reason is that it ties well into the Korean food culture, albeit with a modern twist to it. A homage to Korean culture is its food – a odyssey of flavors and surprises. So, of course, with such a defined characterization in mind, I would naturally gravitate towards the food museum of Seoul, rather than the coffee culture. Despite being a caffeine addict, why? Food culture is shaped by common attitudes, beliefs and practices, and is an integral part of society. Certain ethnic foods are strongly associated with the identity and culture of a specific community.

Kimchi is the Korean name for preserved vegetables seasoned with spices and fermented seafood. It forms an essential part of Korean meals, transcending class and regional differences. The collectively practice of making of kimchi, also known as Kimjang, reaffirms Korean identity and is an excellent opportunity for strengthening family cooperation. Kimjang is also an important reminder for many Koreans that human communities need to live in harmony with nature. Preparation follows a yearly cycle. In spring, households procure shrimp, anchovy and other seafood for salting and fermenting. In summer, they buy sea salt for the brine. In late summer, red chilli peppers are dried and ground into powder. Late autumn is Kimjang season, when communities collectively make and share large quantities of kimchi to ensure that every household has enough to sustain it through the long, harsh winter.

The oldest classical literature recording the origin of fermented vegetables in Korea is Sikyung (the Classic of Poetry), a collection of Chinese poetry dating back to the eleventh to seventh centuries BC. In the Samguk Sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms), it was stated that Koreans had an advanced fermentation technology. Also in this period, many literature works were written to document agricultural practices and cuisine recipes. The opening of Korea to other countries and the Western world through trading activities brought a further exchange of culture and food. Such activities with China, Japan, the Philippines and European countries have allowed the introduction of foreign crops to Korea to be later incorporated into Korean cuisine, including napa or Chinese cabbage, maize, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peanuts and squash. In the literature Hunmongjahoe, the word jeo (菹) appears and refers to a vegetable pickle. A phrase in the literature says “cucumbers growing on the farm are shredded to make jeo and offered to ancestors”. Most Korean kimchi researchers see this sentence as a clue to the appearance and use of early kimchi. In the late Joseon Dynasty, a type of kimchi named seokbakji was exclusively created for the noble families from an assortment of ingredients including colorful vegetables, seafood, fermented fish, nuts and sea staghorn. This coveted kimchi is viewed as an early form of tongbaechu kimchi made from whole napa cabbage usually prepared during kimjang, the communal preparation of kimchi for winter.

According to these reasons, recent conflicts have started regarding the evolution history of Korean cuisine since China played such a dominant role in defining the history of Korean peninsula. The term “kimchi war” refers to a cultural dispute between Korea and its neighboring countries (China and Japan) regarding kimchi involving international organizations. This war has been related to many aspects in these countries, including politics, economics, and cultural identity. The “Korea-Japan kimchi standard disputes” in 1996 began with Korea protesting against Japanese commercial production of kimuchi, which was not fermented and more similar to asazuke, a Japanese pickled vegetable characterised by its short preparation time. Furthermore, Japan attempted to register its kimuchi as a Japanese original food at the Codex Alimentarius Commission held in Tokyo in 1996 at the same time as Korea’s attempt of registering kimichi as Korea’s original food. In 2001, the Codex Alimentarius published a voluntary standard defining kimchi as a fermented food.

The conflicts between Korea and China regarding kimchi arose between 2012 and 2020. China banned the import of Korean kimchi due to its higher concentration of Bacillus than its own pao cai. Even historical accounts documents the difference – the word jeo (菹) differs from the Chinese character used for pao cai (泡菜), thus indicating that kimchi and pao cai are two distinct foods. In 2017, Chinese media encouraged boycott of Korean goods and Chinese nationalists vowed not to eat kimchi. In November 2020, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) posted new regulations for the production of pao cai.

Kimchi war tales aside, what makes kimchi special and different from all salted and fermented vegetables can be summed up in three points: First, the condition of the salted vegetable; Second, the follow-up fermentation process that takes place in a special container after mixing the salted vegetables with a unique seasoning. This allows for the nutritional value to increase substantially and become richer. And, third, both the vegetable ingredient and its juice can be enjoyed together, a contrast to other pickle styles. There are currently more than 200 variations of kimchi in Korea, among which baechu kimchi made from napa cabbage (Brassica rapa subsp. pekinensis) is the most well-known and often addressed as simply kimchi. Baechu kimchi is the most consumed type of kimchi in Korea, followed by kkakdugi kimchi made from Korean radish and chonggak kimchi made from ponytail radish. Some other variations of kimchi include green onion (pa) kimchi, mustard leaf (gat) kimchi, perilla leaf (kkaenip) kimchi and cucumber (oi sobagi) kimchi. Some kimchi variations are categorized as watery (mul) kimchi usually consumed as soup, including dongchimi kimchi and nabak kimchi. The name of each variety of kimchi usually comes from its main ingrdient.

Kimchi is made by fermenting vegetables and additional ingredients (seasonings) in a closed container preferably at a low temperature to allow slow microbial activity and flavor development, as well as long preservation. The fermentation of kimchi takes place due to the activity of lactic acid bacteria (LAB) producing a plethora of organic acids and other compounds that contribute to the unique and complex flavor of kimchi. It is usually served as a side dish (banchan) to be eaten with other elements of a Korean meal (bapsang), including steamed rice (bap), soup (guk), salted dish (jang), and other side dishes consisting of vegetables (namul) and/or protein dishes (meat and fish). In Korea, there is a common saying “if you have kimchi and rice, you have a meal”. This expression highlights the important place kimchi has in the Korean food culture. Even without any other dishes, the sole presence of kimchi and rice would suffice to compose a complete Korean meal.

A museum dedicated to kimchi named the Kimchi Field Museum (Kimchikan) was established in Seoul, South Korea in 1986. It was Korea’s first food museum. In 2000, the museum was renovated so as to expand and improve its facilities for visitors in anticipation of the third Asia-Europe Meeting in Seoul. The museum was reopened at Insa-dong, Jongno District, Seoul, in April 2015. In 2015, the museum was selected by the Cable News Network (CNN) as one of the world’s best food museums. Its exhibits focus on the history of kimchi, its many historical and regional varieties, and its importance to Korean culture and cuisine. To be fair, it was one of my favourite experiences in South Korea.

The fiery fermented food is South Korea’s national dish, the tradition of making and sharing it is listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by Unesco that “reaffirms Korean identity”, and the dish is an integral part of every meal – so much so that when South Korea launched its first astronaut to space in 2008, it sent kimchi with her. Kimchi was once considered as an inferior food for the poor and despised for its strong odor, and now it is used as an instrument of gastro diplomacy by the Korean government, particularly to increase the international brand awareness of the nation. The commercialization and industrialization of kimchi production were done for the first time during South Korea’s involvement in the Vietnam war (1955–1975). The idea emerged as the Korean government wanted to provide rations for its troops. A request for help was then sent by the Korean government to the American government to ensure that South Korean troops, reportedly “desperate” for kimchi, could obtain it in the field. After the Vietnam war, kimchi was exported to the Middle East for Korean construction workers in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

True to its nature as a healthy food, kimchi made its way to the global stage through its first international debut at the worldwide sporting event 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, USA. It was introduced to foreigners for the first time and succeeded to capture the taste buds of the world. Later on, kimchi was designated as the official food for the 1986 Asian Games and 1988 Summer Olympic Games, both of which were held in Seoul, South Korea. These grand events provided a turning point for the recognition of kimchi at the international level and a sudden popularity as a world food. In 2010, through the tagline “Taste of Korea,” South Korea introduced Korean food (K-food) as a force for international diplomacy. Along with the global popularity of Korean pop (K-pop) and Korean drama (K-drama) initiated in the late 2000s, K-food and kimchi flourished and started to be internationally associated with the identity of Korea as a nation. In the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, South Korea made a big advertisement of a kimchi jar made in the shape of a soccer ball in order to promote kimchi. At the 2014 Asian Games held in Incheon, South Korea, Un-Ju Kim, a North Korean female weightlifter who was a world record holder and a gold medalist at the event, said at the press conference that she regularly consumed kimchi as a healthy food and she did not need other special or expensive foods to support her health and performance. Korea is a perfect example of how gastro diplomacy can be used as a soft power to build the image of a nation and gain international recognition. Who needs war, when hunger is the key?

Further readings:

The Museum of Kind is a series of unique experiences, as perceived by me. It is not a debate on which is the best of all.

01 – India in Fashion

02 – Neon in Junkyard

03 – Kimchi

Related (and not-so related) Posts:

South Korea


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s