5 things I learned about kimchi at the COEX Kimchi Museum


When I told some of my students that I went to the kimchi museum last weekend, they said, ‘there’s a kimchi museum?” So maybe it’s not that famous. But in fairness, it is quite small and modestly tucked away in the COEX shopping mall.

Most of the museum is made up of information boards and cabinets of models of plastic kimchi. But there’s also a tasting room (with an appropriately kimchi aroma) and a room for making kimchi that’s open from 10 am till 6 pm. And you can have your picture taken eating kimchi from the chopsticks of a life size model of a lady in a hanbok, if you like. (This was quite popular.)

There was a lot of information to take in. But here are the five things I learnt about kimchi at the Kimchi Museum:

1. Kimchi follows Korean cooking philosophy based on five colours and tastes

Korean cooking colour sense is based on 5 different colours – blue, red, yellow, black, white. And Korean food has created a unique garnish and seasoning culture by separately applying the five colours with five tastes ( hot, sweet, sour, salty, bitter) to the recipe. Kimchi combines the five  tastes and colours with Korean cabbage – white radish, bluish green onion, yellowish garlic and ginger, blackish salted fish, and red hot pepper.

 2. Ingredients for Kimchi have changed over time

From prehistoric times to the three kingdoms the methods of making kimchi involved salting vegetables including radish root, radish, eggplant, cucumber, and wax gourd.

Goryo period (918-1392) the vegetables used became more diverse including cucumber, wild leek, oriental parsley, Indian mustard lead, and bamboo shoots. Juicy kimchis appeared – dongchimi juicy radish kimchi, and seasoned kimchi with garlic and spices such as Chinese pepper or green onions.

Joseon period (1392-1910) – even more ingredients became available and various dipping methods developed such as chotkukji, and chang kimchi (kimchi made by soaking the radishes in old soy sauce instead of salt). In the mid-joseon period, red chilli pepper and various kinds of chotkal (salted and fermented fishes) began to be used in kimchi, which gave a good balance of taste and nutrition.

The most well-known and main kimchi eaten today – Korean cabbage kimchi – has been around for less that 100 years.  Korean cabbage was first found in an old book of medicinal herbs in 1236 (Hyang Yak Gu Geup Bang) but at that time the cabbage had a non structural form and few leaves and so was not used in kimchi. tongpaechu, whole Korean cabbage, known today didn’t become available until the end of the Joseon period (19th century). So that’s when paechu (Korean cabbage) became the main ingredient of kimchi. But chilli peppers were not used in kimchi until the beginning of the 20th century.

So when did chilli peppers come to Korea?
It is thought that hot peppers were introduced by old Japan before or after the Japanese invasion of 1592. But no records of red pepper being used in kimchi were found until over 100 years later. At first red peppers had various other uses such as a tear gas substitution. (I have had the misfortune of touching my eye after touching a chilli so I can see how this would work) Chillies were also used for medicinal purposes such as cold prevention.

In a 19th century family encyclopaedia it is recommended to use hot peppers in kimchi to help preserve it, inhibit the growth of unnecessary bacteria but improve the production of lactic acid bacteria, reduce the fishy smell along with the actions of garlic, green onion and ginger. But powdered red peppers first appeared in a recipe book chosun mu ssang sin sik Yori Jebeob in 1936. And so perhaps this is around the time that the familiar kimchi we know today was created.

BTW Another important ingredient of kimchi is garlic which has always been popular in Korea. It is even mentioned in the legend of the founding of Korea (Dangun Shinhwa) – the bear woman Ungnyeo becomes a human after eating garlic. So Koreans have enjoyed garlic for a long time!

3. Kimchi is Seasonal 

Although the familiar Korean cabbage kimchi is eaten all year round (in our house anyway), there is lots of other Kimchi which is seasonal. Here are some examples of seasonal kimchi with plastic models below:

Winterpaechu kimchi (Korean cabbage kimchi) paek kimchi (juicy white kimchi free of red chilli pepper) dongchim (juicy white radish kimchi) tongmoo kimchi.
Springhaetpaechu kimchi (fresh cabbage kimchi) kat kimchi (Indian mustard leaf kimchi) earlgari kimchi
Summeryoulmu kimchi, (juicy radish leaf kimchi) oi kimchi (cucumber) puchu kimchi (wild leek)
Autumnchonggak kimchi (ponytail kimchi) kaji kimchi (eggplant) kul kkactuki (radish block kimchi with oyster)

4. Kimchi is prepared differently depending on who it is made for

Sometimes the ingredients and methods of preparing kimchi are adjusted depending on the occasion and who is going to eat it. For example older people may prefer a softer texture to the vegetables and on some occasions using lots of garlic or chilli is not appropriate. Here are some examples:

For the king’s table in the joseon period, dishes included paechu kimchi, songsongil and watery kimchi. For kkactuki Songsongil radishes are cut into small cubes to make Royal kkaktuki. (left)



Yolmu kimchi (radish leaf) is used in temples. Kimchi in temples is typically light and mild in taste, because oshinchae the five hot vegetables (green onion, garlic, wold rocambole, wild leek and honggyu) as well as animal products chotkal are avoided.


For the elderly with weak teeth suk kkactuki 숙깍두기 is made by boiling the radishes slightly to make them tender and putting the radishes and secondary ingredients together with seasonings.


In Korea the spirits of the ancestors are treated as the living, so kimchi is placed on the dining table at chesa 제사, the ceremony of memorial service for the ancestors. The foods used in chesa vary from family to family, but nabak kimchi 나박 김치(which is juicy and made with white radish) is usually placed on the table in the chesa ceremony.


5. Storage of kimchi and even the shape of the kimchi pot varies around the country and depends on the season and weather

Most traditional Korean homes have a back garden located as far as possible from the daemun front gate. And the 장독대 jangdokdae – soy-jar terrace was in a sunny ventilated place and stocked with baked or glazed earthenware jars filled with soy sauce  and soybean paste etc. Families believed the soy-jar terrace was important to the well-being of the family and the terrace was cleaned every day and the jars polished. A properly located and well-kept soy-jar terrace was thought to make the family prosperous.

Kimchi must be stored at a consistent temperature for good fermentation, a savoury taste and to preserve it for a long time. So kimchi was stored differently depending on the season. In summer – in a well or stream – the water flowing in the streams helped keep a consistent temperature and delay the maturing process. In winter – under the ground to keep a consistent temperature and prevent freezing. In the picture we can see a Kimchi kwang 김치광 – the jar is buried in the ground and a teepee like house is made out in the ground above.

 김치독 Dark glazed pottery

Korea’s basic fermented foods were stored and matured in either glazed pottery or in small jars. Air could pass through allowing the contents to breathe so that the fermented foods could be stored for a long time without becoming sour or rotten.

I thought that the pots were made in different shapes just for aesthetic purposes. But no. The shapes of the pots vary from region to region due to environment and weather conditions. The north is colder and has less sun so going northwards the diameter of the mouth of the pottery increases to catch more sun. The shapes vary like this –

north – large mouth, sharp bulge, and very tall
middle region – mouth and bottom are the same size, shapely and well formed
south – The mouth of pottery has a small mouth since there is lots of sun here and too much sun would evaporate the contents. A rounded bulge surface can catch a larger amount of radiation that a smaller bulge.

The pots are all generally made of earthenware mostly brown glazed. But the haeju dok (from kwanso region in the northwest) are unusual because they are made of porcelain. (It’s not known why.)

It’s obvious really, but I hadn’t thought about how much the seasons and weather affect the making and storing of kimchi. So from now on I’m going to pay more attention to the seasons and the different kinds of kimchi that are served at different times of the year. And I’ll look for the five colours when we eat out – since there’s ALWAYS kimchi on the table.

I was surprised to learn that red powdered chilli has only been used in kimchi for a relatively short number of years. These days so much Korean food is spicy and chilli powder is used all the time. I thought it would have a longer history in cooking. It was also interesting to learn that chillies were brought to Korea from Japan, because Japanese food is not spicy AT ALL, is it? – even Japanese garlic and chillies are MUCH milder than Korean ones.


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