As you make your way down the rabbit hole of fermented foods you come across many methods for producing quick versions of traditionally fermented products. In fact, for most people the initial introduction to these foods is through a quick and easy bang-bang preparation method. Common examples include mustard, sauerkraut and gherkins. These are passable, and due to the relative ease and cost with which they can be produced at scale have come to almost completely overtake traditional production methods involving fermentation. This is a big part of the reason why traditionally fermented products are rarely done so today.
Perhaps there are cultural elements to this. Almost every distinctive food product has inherent ties to a culture based on the anthropological history of that culture. As people from different cultures migrate some elements of that culture change, evolve, or adapt to find a middle ground with the customs and cultures of the adopted land. More cynically, elements of culture get watered down as value systems change. Kimchi offers an interesting insight into food as a part of culture, and how that food item changes as it is introduced or adapted in other parts of the world.
Kimchi is spicy relish-like side dish which is a staple of Korean cuisine. It has a history spanning thousands of years, from the earliest records of fermented vegetables in the region, to the hundreds of typical variants existing today. It is ubiquitous.
Since chillies were only introduced to East Asia by Portuguese travellers in the 17th century, historical kimchis were not spicy, but did include many of the vegetables which make up most of the modern variants. The main variants existing today are separated by the vegetables included as well as the base spices. The most common kimchi has a base of cabbage and typically includes radishes and onions, and seasoned with salt, chilli and garlic. Additional vegetables and spices, and proportions thereof will be varied based on the recipe of the producer. Other variations may include different kinds of seafood.
In Korea kimchi is typically fermented and still often produced on a domestic scale for personal consumption only. The fermentation process is where the real magic lies. It’s also where more variation creeps in. Kimchi is naturally fermented, meaning the natural microorganisms which exist all around us are allowed to ferment the sugars present in the ingredients and produce lactic acid and flavour compounds. The lactic acid contributes the typical sourness and helps to preserve the ingredients. A different mix of these microorganisms exist in different places so fermentation undertaken in different locations (as close as neighbouring towns or as far as different continents) will have slight variations in flavour produced by that particular mix of organisms. Much of the asserted health benefits of kimchi, and fermented foods in general, come as a result of these microorganisms the most important of which are the lactobacillus bacteria. These are the same bacteria responsible for producing yoghurt and are included in most probiotics. Of course, producing kimchi through natural fermentation takes knowledge and skill, and most importantly time. Added to this is a certain amount of variability inherent in natural fermentation and it’s easy to see why many would rather produce an adequate interpretation without going through the hassle of fermentation.
The inevitable question with fermented foods is then: Does flavour trump tradition and health benefits? If we can approximate the flavour without the hassle then surely we should do that? When it comes to condiments it’s easy to make the argument that, since this is not a staple, it’s hardly worth being overly concerned with health benefits over flavour. I would argue that these factors are intrinsically related when it comes to fermented foods. You will rarely – if ever – find a version of a product not produced through fermentation which has the depth of flavour and complexity of its traditionally fermented peer, with its elementally simplicity and health benefits to boot.
The first few versions of kimchi I tasted were harshly spicy or harshly sour, or both. I’d basically decided I didn’t like it. Then I tasted proper kimchi, produced through natural fermentation. It was beautiful! Explosions of flavour ranging from spicy chilli, sour, umami and subtle sweetness filled my mouth. I nearly ate the whole jar in one sitting. That kind of complexity and depth of flavour cannot be achieved through cutting corners. I don’t believe you can make really good kimchi without fermentation.
I would encourage you try a fermented kimchi. Also try fermented versions of other products. I guarantee you will find them superior. The way we encourage these production methods is by supporting those companies that choose fermentation over easier methods. That is the fermented journey – seeking and encouraging a return to traditional production methods which were superior in flavour, nutrition and health benefits.