5 things I learned about kimchi at the Kimchi Museum


When I told some of my students that I went to the kimchi museum, they said, ‘there’s a kimchi museum?” So maybe it’s not that famous. But in fairness, it was quite small and modestly tucked away in the COEX shopping mall. (update: In 2015 the name changed to Museum kimchikan and it moved to Insadong.) 

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 the Korean cooking philosophy based on FIVE colours and tastes

Korean dishes are based on a combination of 5 colours: blue, red, yellow, black, and white; and five tastes: hot, sweet, sour, salty, and bitter.

In Kimchi the five tastes and colours are combined – 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 choice of vegetables 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.

napa kimchi

TODAY napa cabbage kimchi is the most well-known – but it has been around for less that 100 years. And 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 around the Japanese invasion of 1592. 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. But powdered red peppers first appeared in a recipe book chosun mu ssang sin sik Yori Jebeob in 1936.

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.


3. Kimchi is Seasonal 

WINTER – paechu kimchi (Korean cabbage kimchi) paek kimchi (juicy white kimchi free of red chilli pepper) dongchim (juicy white radish kimchi) tongmoo kimchi.

SPRING – haetpaechu kimchi (fresh cabbage kimchi) kat kimchi (Indian mustard leaf kimchi) earlgari kimchi

SUMMER – youlmu kimchi, (juicy radish leaf kimchi) oi kimchi (cucumber) puchu kimchi (wild leek)

AUTUMN – chonggak kimchi (ponytail kimchi) kaji kimchi (eggplant) kul kkactuki (radish block kimchi with oyster)

spring onion

spring onion kimchi

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

Sometimes the ingredients and preparation methods are adjusted depending on the occasion and who is is for – A joseon king, an elderly person, a monk, a deceased ancestor…

For the elderly with weak teeth suk kkactuki 숙깍두기 is made by boiling radishes slightly first to make them more tender. Kimchi in temples is typically light and mild in taste, because spicey  vegetables and animal products are avoided.

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.

dae jang geum

5. Storage of kimchi and kimchi pots vary depending on the season and weather

Most traditional Korean homes had a back garden located as far as possible from the daemun front gate. And the 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 pots
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 where the water flowing in the streams helped keep a consistent temperature and delay the maturing process. And in winter – under the ground to keep a consistent temperature and prevent freezing.

 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 the pots were made in different shapes just for aesthetic purposes. But no!

The shapes 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.

It’s obvious really, but I hadn’t thought about how much the seasons and weather affect the making and storing of kimchi.

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