Characterized by its spicy taste, crispness, and pungent smell, kimchi is one of the most well-known Korean dishes in the world. It is one of the things Korea is famous for – a testament to how successful South Korea has been at using its pop culture and cuisine as part of its branding and “soft power” strategy.
Wherever you are in the world, there is a high chance that you’ve eaten or at least heard of kimchi. Maybe you’ve had it with your Korean barbecue, a hot bowl of ramyeon, or a grilled cheese sandwich. Yet, for all its popularity, what do we really know about it?
If you think this Korean food is just a spicy, funky-smelling cabbage salad, this list of facts about kimchi will prove you wrong.
Historical facts about kimchi
No need for a time machine – these facts about kimchi will take you on an exciting trip down kimchi’s colorful past!
1. Kimchi has a long-standing history.
No one knows exactly when Koreans first started making kimchi. But the Samguk Sagi, a historical record of the Three Kingdoms of Korea (57 BC – 668 AD) cites the use of onggi (brown ceramic jar) to ferment vegetables.
There were no refrigerators in ancient times so ancient Koreans pickled vegetables to help preserve the lifespan of food. Furthermore, Korea has always had long, harsh winters so these pickled veggies were left to ferment in the jars and stored in the ground to prevent freezing.
It is said that during the Silla dynasty (57 BC-AD 935), kimchi became more common across the nation, thanks to the rise of Buddhism. The radish kimchi also became ubiquitous in Goryeo (918–1392).
2. And it wasn’t always spicy.
The traditional kimchi most of us know is red and spicy. But did you know that it was originally non-spicy?
The earliest forms of kimchi were simply vegetables, mainly radishes, dipped in soybean paste or fermented in brine. Chili pepper, which wasn’t native to Korea, only came into the scene in the early 17th century when they were introduced by Portuguese traders.
Today, the bucolic town of Cheongyang is known for producing the country’s most beloved peppers, the fiery “Cheongyang pepper.” It registers 10,000 Scoville heat units and is commonly ground into powder to use in preparing kimchi and other foods.
3. Kimchi was used as political leverage during the Vietnam War.
South Korean soldiers fought alongside American forces during the Vietnam War. In 1967, South Korean Prime Minister Chung Il-kwon presented a letter from South Korean President Park Chung-hee to US President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Along with requests for help in the modernization of the Korean military, Park emphasized the importance of boosting the Korean troops’ morale. How, you ask? By providing a steady supply of kimchi.
Ten days later, Johnson penned his response, assuring Park that he had asked his Secretary of Defense to provide Korean troops with kimchi and peppers daily at a cost of about two million dollars annually.
4. Kimchi was one of the official foods of the 1988 Olympics.
In the lead-up to the 1988 Olympics that Seoul hosted, Korean officials worried about how foreign athletes and journalists will react to kimchi. They believed kimchi was alienating and off-putting for most foreigners because of its taste and pungent smell.
The thought of Koreans hesitating to present kimchi to their guests is unthinkable now but it was a real concern back then. Fortunately, a compromise was made.
Kimchi was one of the official foods of the 1988 Olympics but Koreans who were working with foreign visitors were instructed to brush their teeth thoroughly after every meal.
The 1988 Olympics was kimchi’s first global introduction and visitors responded well, with many taking a new liking to the dish. After the Olympics, sales skyrocketed locally and across the world.
5. Kimchi has been brought to space!
One of the most well-known facts about kimchi is that it’s a part of Koreans’ day-to-day life… even outside earth.
In April 2008, Yi So Yeon became the first South Korean to go outer space. In preparation for her journey, scientists researched and developed “space kimchi”. It looked, tasted, and smelled like the regular cabbage kimchi but it had low calories, more vitamins, and had no bacteria.
Scientists feared that cosmic rays might mutate the bacteria. So after fermenting the kimchi, they rid it of its micro-organisms through doses of radiation and then packed it in a half-dried state.
Yi So Yeon spent 11 days aboard the space station and hosted a crew dinner on April 12 in honor of the first Russian in space, Yuri Gagarin. The dinner featured various Korean dishes including kimchi, which received positive responses.
6. South Korea faced a kimchi crisis in 2010.
Due to an unusually long stretch of heavy rainfall, the harvest time for napa cabbage, the key ingredient in tongbaechu kimchi, was halved. The price of the cabbage and other kimchi ingredients, as well as kimchi itself, rose greatly and created a national crisis.
South Korea heavily depended on kimchi – it is part of every Korean’s meal and is offered as a free banchan (side dish) in all local restaurants. The shortage got so bad that there were even reports of men stealing cabbage heads.
7. The art of making kimchi is a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Every year in late fall, families and friends gather together to collectively make kimchi in a process called kimjang (or gimjang). Entire communities come together to make and share kimchi, dividing work and turning hundreds of cabbage heads into kimchi while building relationships.
At first, this practice helped lessen the work burden of women and ensured that every family had enough supply of kimchi. Over time, it came to symbolize the Korean identity and culture of family cooperation, sharing, and a deep sense of community.
This unique culture, both shared by North and South Korea, earned recognition from UNESCO. In 2013, UNESCO added South Korean kimjang to its list of intangible cultural heritage items, and North Korean kimjang in 2015.
Fascinating facts about kimchi
From stunning stats to viral memes and encounters with famous personalities, kimchi has had it all. If these facts about kimchi don’t impress you, I don’t know what will.
8. There are over 200 types of kimchi.
One of my favorite facts about kimchi is that it has lots of variants. And I mean, a looooot.
Korea has so many variants that even Koreans themselves haven’t tried all of them. The quintessential baechu kimchi (napa cabbage) is the most popular, followed by ggakdugi (chopped radish), gat kimchi (mustard leaf), baek (white) kimchi, nabak kimchi (mildly spicy radish water), and dongchimi (non-spicy radish water).
But I bet you didn’t know that more vegetables and fruits are being made into kimchi. From eggplant to spinach, persimmons, pineapple, oranges, bamboo shoots, pears, and grapes – you name it, there’s probably a kimchi version of it.
9. And not all of them are fermented.
The traditional process of making kimchi involves fermentation and that’s what gives kimchi its distinct tangy taste and strong smell. But fresh, unfermented kimchi does exist and it’s called geotjeori. There’s also yeolmu kimchi, which is made from radishes and may or may not be fermented.
Because fresh kimchi skips fermentation, it tastes raw and more like a salad, with crispier vegetables. And while a substantial amount of salt is needed in fermenting kimchi, only a small amount is used with fresh kimchi. For obvious reasons, unfermented kimchi also doesn’t have probiotics.
10. Baechu kimchi is the most popular type of kimchi.
But you already know that.
Baechu kimchi, or napa cabbage kimchi, is the most prepared type of kimchi and is the most consumed type of kimchi not just in Korea but worldwide. It is so common that it’s often just called kimchi.
This type of kimchi is usually made in late autumn or early winter. Leaves of whole napa cabbages are salted and then fermented with different fillings that may include Korean radish and other vegetables, jeotgal (salted seafood), gochugaru (chili powder), and other seasonings that vary per region or family.
11. South Korea consumes nearly 80 pounds of kimchi per person per year.
In 2003, South Koreans consumed an average of 40 pounds of kimchi per person. A few years later, this number grew to 50 pounds and by 2017, it was reported that South Koreans consume 1.85 million metric tons of kimchi annually or an average of 36.1 kilograms (80 pounds) of kimchi per person.
Let that sink in.
12. South Korea imports kimchi from China.
As you can glean from the stats above, South Koreans eat so much kimchi. They eat so much that local producers are unable to meet this demand.
A huge chunk of the kimchi Koreans consume comes from China. In 2019, it imported 306,619 tons of kimchi from China, 281,021 tons in 2020, and over 240,600 tons in 2021. Despite the decline (which I’ll explain in the next item), kimchi exported from South Korea is still way lower by comparison.
Restaurants in Korea are known to serve free (and sometimes, unlimited) kimchi. Locally made kimchi costs up to four times as much as China-made ones so many restaurant owners prefer the latter. Oh, and most of the kimchi sold outside Korea is also produced by China.
13. There is an ongoing “kimchi war” between South Korea and China.
Since 2012, China has banned the import of Korean kimchi, citing that kimchi is a derivative of the Chinese dish pao cai.
In November 2020, the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) released new regulations for pao cai, and the Chinese news organization Global News claimed that this new ISO regulation is “an international standard for the kimchi industry led by China”.
Needless to say, this sparked outrage among South Koreans, with influencers from both countries fanning the flames. In March 2021, the kimchi wars further intensified after a video clip titled “Kimchi making in China” went viral. In the video, a shirtless man was sorting cabbages in a sludge-colored pool of liquid.
This prompted the movement to shun China-made kimchi, hence the decline in imports. But whether South Korea will completely ban kimchi from China, no one knows.
14. Kimchi gave Korea a viral slap in 2014.
Now, here’s a meme-worthy kimchi fact.
Everybody Say Kimchi is a morning comedy-drama series that aired in South Korea from April 7 to October 31, 2014. It was not a well-known show by anyone’s standards, but one scene went viral.
The scene featured actress Lee Hyo Choon grabbing an entire napa cabbage kimchi from its packaging and slapping it across actor Won Ki Joon’s face.
In an interview, Won stated that the kimchi was three months old and Lee took her time soaking the kimchi before slapping him. It was so juicy that Won got chili powder into his eyes, nose, ears, and gave him a severe headache.
It certainly couldn’t have felt good but it made for an iconic K-drama moment.
15. Taking photos in Korea? Don’t say cheese, say kimchi!
When taking photos, many Koreans say “kimchi!” instead of the usual “cheese”.
I say many because just like how the English-speaking world doesn’t exclusively say “cheese”, not all Koreans say “kimchi”. Some say “smile”, “whiskey”, “LG” (yes, the Korean electronics brand), and some do say “cheese”! Simply put, Koreans can use any word that rhymes with cheese.
For the complete Korean-style photo-taking sesh, throw up the “peace” sign or the “finger heart”!
16. Michelle Obama loves kimchi.
And she even shared her own recipe!
The former First Lady of the United States of America shared a simple kimchi recipe on Twitter in 2013, saying they picked napa cabbage in the garden to make kimchi at home. The ingredients and preparation were slightly modified to fit Western taste but it caused a positive buzz nonetheless.
17. A kimchi museum was named one of the world’s best food museums by CNN.
In 1986, the Kimchi Field Museum opened in Pildong, Jung-gu. As its name suggests, it’s a museum dedicated to kimchi. It was Korea’s first food museum and it was managed by Pulmuone Inc., one of the largest food producers and biggest brands of kimchi in Korea.
In 2015, after some renovations, it reopened as Museum Kimchikan in its new location in Insadong. In the same year, it was selected by CNN as one of the world’s best food museums.
A visit to this museum demonstrates just how serious Koreans are about their kimchi. Aside from the exhibits on kimchi history, you can sample different kimchi varieties, and even know how to make kimchi yourself!
Health facts about kimchi
Kimchi has been touted as healthy food, and even a superfood by some. But is it really? These health facts about kimchi will clear some confusion around the benefits of kimchi and its possible dangers.
18. Kimchi has a chockful of nutrients and probiotics.
Kimchi is mostly made of vegetables (or fruits, sometimes) so it’s nutrient-dense. While the concentration of nutrients varies per type of kimchi, you’ll generally get lots of dietary fiber, vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B6, C, and K, as well as calcium, iron, and folate – nutrients that help with metabolism, bone health, and energy production.
Since kimchi is fermented, it’s also packed with probiotics (lactobacilli) that boost gut health and immunity. The best part? It’s low in calories!
19. Yeolmu kimchi and gat kimchi pack the highest vitamin content.
Kimchi, in general, is healthy. But if you have to choose varieties, go with yeolmu (young summer radish) and gat (Indian mustard) kimchi.
A 100-gram serving of yeolmu kimchi has 3.3 grams of dietary fiber, a whopping 595mcg of vitamin A (the highest among common types of kimchi), 0.29mg vitamin B2, and 28mg vitamin C.
The same serving size of gat kimchi packs 4g dietary fiber, 390mcg vitamin A, 1.3mg niacin, and the highest concentration of vitamin C at 48mg.
That said, these types of kimchi aren’t as common outside Korea.
20. Kimchi may aid weight loss.
In a 4-week study on 22 people with excess weight, researchers found that eating kimchi helped reduce body weight, body fat, and blood sugar levels. Both fresh and fermented varieties helped boost weight loss. However, those who ate fermented kimchi displayed more improvements, especially lowered blood sugar levels.
It’s unclear what exactly is it in kimchi that is responsible for these effects but the fiber content may contribute, as well as the vitamins and probiotics. In addition, the capsaicin in Korean red chili is also said to help break down fat and boost metabolism.
21. But there are also side effects…
Considering all the above kimchi health facts, it should be fine to eat it to your heart’s content, right?
Yes. Unless you have IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) or are at risk of high blood pressure, stroke, or heart disease.
What many of us forget is that kimchi fermentation requires a lot of salt. A daily portion of kimchi contains 1,232 mg sodium. For context, Koreans consume an average of 4,553 milligrams of salt per day, more than double the World Health Organization’s recommendation of 2,000 mg/day.
Kimchi also contains a huge amount of garlic, which may cause unwanted reactions from people who suffer from IBS.
So, is kimchi bad for you? No. As long as you consume in moderation and you don’t have the above conditions, you should be fine with eating kimchi daily.
22. Kimchi is neither vegetarian nor vegan.
Most of the ingredients that go into kimchi are vegan- and vegetarian-friendly. But traditional kimchi-making calls for jeotgal or salted seafood that gives kimchi its rich, briny flavor. We’re talking aekjeot (fish sauce), saeu-jeot (salted shrimp), and myeolchi-jeot (salted anchovies), to name a few.
In other parts of Korea, galchi-jeot (salted hairtail) and jogi-jeot (salted croaker) are sometimes used. In North Korea, jeotgal is sometimes replaced with raw seafood.
The great news is, some producers have started selling vegan kimchi.
Facts about kimchi preparation and cooking
These facts about kimchi will introduce you to the different types that exist in and outside Korea, how it’s prepared and stored, and how you can make it part of your diet!
23. Koreans eat different types of kimchi per season.
Koreans have traditional season preferences for kimchi mainly due to two reasons. First, vegetables are seasonal. Second, before the advent of modern refrigeration, people had to take advantage of the cold and hot seasons to ferment different types of kimchi.
Baechu kimchi is traditionally made during late autumn and is consumed in the winter. Dongchimi is also often consumed in the winter, but dongchimi noodles are popular in the summer.
In spring, fresh potherbs and vegetables are harvested to make kimchi, often consumed fresh. Yeolmu kimchi and cucumber kimchi are summer favorites.
24. There are regional varieties…
Local kimchi ingredients vary per region, primarily depending on what’s available in each province. For instance, seafood used vary from region to region. In Jeolla-do, salted yellow corvina and salted butterfish are used in seasoning kimchi while Hamgyeong-do uses fresh fish and oysters.
The amount of salt and length of fermentation also vary. Kimchi from the North contains less salt and fermentation is slower because of the colder temperatures. Kimchi in Gyeonsang-do is saltier and spicier. In Gangwon-do, kimchi is fermented longer but doesn’t contain a lot of salted fish.
Conversely, every Korean family has its own kimchi recipe, passed down from generation. While most try to stay faithful to the regional recipes, many people have diverged from them.
25. …And varieties from other countries!
Koreans can be adaptable and willing to work with whatever they have.
Ethnic Koreans in Kazakhstan, Russia, Uzbekistan, and other Central Asian countries don’t have access to napa cabbage so they replace it with carrots. This type of kimchi is called morkovcha, a salad of julienned carrots mixed with salt, garlic, red pepper, coriander, and vinegar.
In other countries, some Koreans (and non-Koreans who have a liking for kimchi) use other types of cabbage and sometimes, broccoli.
26. Kimchi may last for years.
Typical kimchi varieties ferment for 3–4 days at room temperature or 2–3 weeks in the fridge. Kept at room temperature, kimchi lasts only a week after opening.
In the refrigerator, it stays fresh for about 3–6 months but it continues to ferment, making it even sourer. Although how you can manage to keep a jar for that long is beyond me.
Kimchi can go bad but when it does, it’s kinda tough to tell. Sometimes, what smells bad for some may not smell bad for others. Tolerance of sourness may also differ from person to person. But if you do spot mold in your kimchi, it’s time to throw it away.
That being said, with proper refrigeration techniques, kimchi can last for years. Muk Eun Ji prides itself in producing Korean aged kimchi, which is matured at a low temperature for over a year and up!
27. There’s a special type of refrigerator for kimchi.
To maintain the freshness of kimchi, it has to be stored in an airtight container with a consistent temperature of 32 to 41 degrees Fahrenheit. And so, in 1984, GoldStar (now LG) invented the kimchi refrigerator.
Years later, the kimchi refrigerator is commonplace in Korean households. This refrigerator is specifically designed to meet the storage requirements of kimchi, letting it ferment in the best environment possible. It’s not just colder but it also has more humidity and less moving air.
28. You can eat kimchi in plenty of delicious ways…
Kimchi is Korea’s traditional banchan but it can also be used for cooking different Korean dishes. In fact, if you’re not a fan of eating kimchi on its own, it’s best to try it in other forms to better appreciate it.
Popular kimchi dishes include kimchi jeon (kimchi pancake), kimchibokkeumbap (kimchi fried rice), kimchi mandu (kimchi dumplings), dubu kimchi (tofu with stir-fried kimchi), and a favorite of mine, kimchi jjigae (kimchi stew).
29. …Or drink it!
Love kimchi so much? Or just feeling adventurous? You’re in luck because the fiery, probiotic juice of kimchi is now available for drinking.
Kimchi juice was originally sold as a briny ingredient for cooking, marinating, or dressings. But in the last few years, it has been marketed as a healthy drink similar to kefir or kombucha. An acquired taste, for sure, but so is kimchi.
30. Koreans love homemade kimchi.
Indeed, the art of kimjang is slowly dying as the younger generation participates less in kimchi-making and prefers buying ready-made kimchi. But Koreans still prefer homemade kimchi over store-bought ones, with only 40% of the population buying kimchi.
And why not? Making your own kimchi at home is relatively easy and economical.
The Koreans’ strong sense of family is woven into kimchi culture. Like many homecooked meals, kimchi sparks nostalgia in many adults, bringing to mind childhood memories. Plus, the elders still make and send kimchi to their adult children in the cities as a way to express their affection and love.
I don’t know about you but this list of facts about kimchi made me drool! It also made me love kimchi more.
How about you? Do you love kimchi, too? Do you eat it regularly or use it for cooking? We’d love to hear from you! Chime in on the comments and share your yummy kimchi experiences!