OK. So, we get it. Kimchi is a dish made of fermented cabbage. Cool. But what exactly is that? And why does it kind of sound a bit disgusting when you put it like that? Fermenting sounds icky, and fermented cabbage sounds ickier.
Here’s the thing: people have been fermenting food for years. In fact, a lot of foods we enjoy in modern times are either fermented or were fermented at some point. Everyday foods like ketchup, beer, cheese, salsa, soy sauce, vinegar, wine, sour cream, yogurt and sourdough bread were all made traditionally by allowing food to grow a little bit of yeast or bacteria.
Wait! Don’t freak out just yet. I’ll get into why that’s not such a bad thing in a bit. The funny thing is, by growing a bit of yeast or bacteria, the food not only doesn’t spoil, it becomes much more nutritious and (in many cases) much more delicious!
These bacteria that are performing the fermentation are also completely harmless to people (as opposed to the ones that would give you food poisoning) and may even have been the key to good health and increased nutritional content. (We’ll get into the friendly bacteria and nutritional benefits in a later post)
But let’s go back to why? Why allow your food to literally start decomposing? Who the heck decided to leave out cabbage until it started rotting, then decided to EAT IT? First of all, there were no fridges back then, and there were also no preservatives like the ones we have today in the food processing industry. That meant that if you couldn’t quickly eat what you had, and there was no way of drying it safely, you would have to throw away what you couldn’t eat. In the case of cabbage, it was a very valuable source of vitamins, minerals, and all sorts of good stuff that people would want to have available as frequently as possible. You had to find a way to make the cabbage last, especially through the cold and bitter winter if you wanted to survive.
Most likely, it was discovered by accident – someone must have left some cabbage out, found that it wasn’t too bad after leaving it a few days and surprisingly that it didn’t kill them after eating (My guess it must have been the ancestor of foul bachelor frog)
However gross it was, an important discovery had been made: there were ways to preserve cabbage and other vegetables that would allow you to keep it for long periods of time. This would also allow you to stockpile veggies when you had an awesome harvest for the times when you did not have have so great of a harvest.
Through trial and error, people started experimenting with fermentation and preservation, finding different methods and techniques to preserve vegetables and food. Kimchi would be one example, using a salty brine to create the perfect environment for hosting the bacteria to ferment cabbage.
Next time, we’ll talk about the friendly little bugs that are doing the fermentation, and how exactly Koreans are able to encourage these good bacteria to grow in their kimchi.
Do you like fermented foods? And do you have a favorite? While I love kimchi, I also love Greek yogurt as well as all manner of soft cheeses. Let me know your favorite fermented foods in the comments below!