A long long time ago, there were no refrigerators. Or freezers. Or any sort of food preservation methods that we commonly use now. Since you couldn’t just run down the corner to the grocery store, you wanted to save and preserve food during the times where you had a lot of it for when you didn’t have a lot of it.
One of these methods was fermentation. Most likely an accidental discovery, the fermentation process became a way of preserving vegetables available for later. As early as 300 AD, Koreans were already seemingly experts with fermentation, brewing and pickling according to the Book of the Three Kingdoms. 1
The early forms of kimchi most likely were very simple vegetables preserved with salt (the cabbage kimchi with red pepper we are familiar with being a more modern invention) but they did the trick – allowing Koreans to eat vegetables well after they were harvested.
Over time, Koreans became pretty masterful at preserving food. Kimchi is one of the five preserved sauces utilized in traditional Korean cuisine, which also include soy sauce (ganjang), soybean paste (dwaenjang), red pepper soybean paste (gochujang) and fermented seafood (jeotgal). All of these fermented and salty condiments were served along other food items to increase the flavor and nutritional value of food, but also to preserve the harvest and increase food security.
Kimchi continued to evolve, getting more complex as society progressed. Throughout the Koryeo period of Korea (918-1392 AD) kimchi likely evolved to incorporate more vegetables, herbs, and the fermented seafood dishes called jeotgal as the more and more trading started occurring in the region. Each region of Korea started making their own style of kimchi, and they started getting crazy in their recipes. Yet, the big game-changer in the flavor of kimchi was still yet to come.
In the 16th century, Japan invaded Korea. While generally a pretty horrible time, there was actually a silver lining amongst the warfare and rape and pillage of the Korean peninsula. Globalization had resulted in a little thing called the Columbian exchange (named for the now infamous Portuguese explorer who had appropriate the discovery of America for the Western world). Once the Europeans had crossed over the Atlantic to the Americas, they didn’t find the riches and spices of Asia, but they did in fact find a lot of other stuff – llamas, turkeys, mink, blueberries, cocoa, cotton, corn, peanuts, and of course, peppers. Old World and New World plants and animals started spreading through trade. The red chili pepper, a native of the Americas, began to make it’s way over from the New World to Korea through Portuguese trading with the Japanese. After the Hideyeoshi invasions of the 16th century, the red chili pepper would infiltrate Korean culture, eventually making it’s way into the kimchi that we know and love today. 2